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Habit Cues: Understanding the Mechanism of Habit Formation 

Habit Cues: Understanding the Mechanism of Habit Formation 

Jun 09, 2021

Habit cues are the first component of the “Habit Loop.”

The habit loop is a tool that we can use to understand and address the ways that both good and bad habits are formed. Habits are generally unconscious by nature. They are actions we take after prompted by a specific cue.

What are Habit Cues?

There are five primary types of cues in the habit loop. These are actions, or “triggers,” that prompt the habit to occur. Understanding these cues can provide a clearer picture of why we do what we do.


If you pay attention, you may notice that you repeat certain tasks mindlessly at different points during the day. In many cases, your habits are signals expressing how you feel. Your afternoon snacking habit may be a way of breaking up the monotony of the day when you are feeling board or restless. Your smoke break or texting when you should be working may be the way that you connect with fellow co-workers to keep from feeling isolated.

Understanding the reason why these habits pop up at the same time each day can make it easier to find a new habit to fill the void during that particular time.


You walk into the coffee shop, and even though you aren’t actually hungry, you grab a muffin from the counter. This is a location cue. The action is almost mindless because it is just what you do when are in that environment. This can be said for actions like drinking a beer while watching football, or parking in the same stall at work. Research shows that starting or stopping a habit (like smoking) is easier when you are on vacation because of the lack of location cues.

Preceding Events

Many habits are in response to something that happened, and you probably don’t realize it’s happening. You get a text message and realize you have social media notifications. Suddenly you have spent 20 minutes scrolling on Facebook. This is a common example of a preceding event cue. Once you are aware this is happening, you can start to control it and change it.

Emotional State

Your emotional state of mind can cue both good and bad habits. Are you more productive at work when you are happy? Do you tend to drink or smoke when you are angry? What about shopping online when you are board?

Controlling your emotions is one of the hardest things to do. You have to be consciously aware of how you’re are feeling. Check yourself. Do you really want that bowl of ice cream, or are you just sad?

Other People

The people you surround yourself with can influence your habits. A recent MIT study found that people who were active and shared fitness results in their communities were more likely to stay active. There are also a number of studies on how obesity becomes common among friend groups. The same is shown for environmental consciousness.

Surround yourself with people who have similar goals and healthy habits. Don’t disregard your less-motivated friends, but consider being a catalyst for their healthier lifestyle.

How Knowing Your Habit Cues Can Help

Habits are not usually things you are doing consciously, which is why they can be difficult to stop and start. Knowing your trigger can help you understand the reason the behavior occurs, giving you a clearer picture of how to avoid or maximize your actions to build positive healthy habits.