The ONE thing that you definitely need for Healthy Habits to Happen

This morning I had a shower, and straight after showering I put on some of that moisturiser that you can put on before you dry off. Also this morning, I had some oats and granola for breakfast, without seeds on top. So why am I telling you these two things? Well, they both have something in common, or rather not in common, because in the first example there was a cue and in the second there wasn’t. Watch the video or read the blog below to find out more…

After a shower I like to moisturise my skin. I would say that I do this if I remember, but what I actually mean is that I do it if I see the moisturiser bottle in the shower. I see the bottle and tell myself “I’ll use that when I’m finished”. If the bottle has been moved and I don’t see it, it’s likely I’ll get out of the shower, go into my room, put my clothes on and then think, “Ah, I didn’t moisturise, it’s too late now”. So, I moisturise if I see the bottle in the shower, but I don’t moisturise if I don’t see it.  

And similarly, when I have cereal or porridge for breakfast, I like to put some mixed seeds on top. But that only happens if I see the jar or the packet of mixed seeds. If I don’t see it, I usually forget.

These two actions both have a cue, which is the one thing we need for healthy habits to happen. Everything that you do, every habit that you have, has a cue, whether you realise it or not.

When we want to change a habit or to start a new habit, we need to recognise there is always a cue, and bring it to the surface. The brain is a very good detection machine that’s always trying to solve problems and find solutions. It will get to the place where it recognises that if one thing happens, then another thing happens which is a solution or a result. That might not not necessarily be a healthy habit, it could be an unhealthy habit too, but your brain thinks, “Ah! that’s a solution we’ll do that again”.

Old habits can become ingrained; you might not easily recognise the cues as they’re so automatic and so it’s difficult to change them. Have you ever got into a car and without really thinking, driven past where you’re meant to be going, because you’re sticking to a famliar route? Perhaps it’s the weekend and you’re driving to church or to see a friend, but you find yourself on autopilot driving the school run, or your route to work instead. It’s because there are so many cues along the way that send you in the direction that you’re so used to.

I recently read about someone who used to work in a primary school who now works in an office on reception. Even now she sometimes she finds herself asking people as they come out of the toilet if they washed their hands, because it’s such an old and ingrained habit. What have you done on autopilot that’s just so ingrained that even though it wasn’t what you intended to do, you did it?

There are all kinds of cues that our brain uses. Two of the most obvious ones that we can use in our favour are when and where. So, when you’re trying to embed a new healthy habit, do you just say “I would like to exercise more, I’m going to exercise more”, or do you have a plan and know when and where it’s going to happen?

When and where are two of the strongest cues, so if you write something in your diary or arrange with a friend to turn up at a certain place at a certain time, you know that it’s going to happen. And it’s important to make space in our diaries and in our lives to for habits to happen, to have room to live and breathe. Be specific. For example, if you say you are going to drink more water, consider exactly how that will that happen. You could say: “I’m going to drink glass of water when I wake up, and I’m going to drink a glass of water with my lunch”. Another thing you can do is bundling or stacking. This is using something in your life that already happens as your cue for a new habit. For example:

  • when you unload the dishwasher, you listen to a podcast.
  • when you sit down and have your morning cup of tea, you pray.
  • when you get dressed in the morning, you put your exercise clothes on,
  • when you finish lunch, you have an apple.

What can you use that already exists that could become a cue for your new healthy habit? You spend about 2 minutes brushing your teeth, what else could you do at the same time? Could you pray, do a squat, plan your day ahead, or meditate on a Bible verse?

For most people, vision is the primary sense, it’s the one our brain responds to the easiest, and so sometimes it’s not about wanting a specific thing, it’s about wanting what we see. Shops, supermarkets, and petrol stations are designed with the consumer in mind, in a way that the company can make money. As you go into a supermarket, you’ll see things near the door that you didn’t think you wanted and didn’t go in for. The things you are more likely to pop in for, like milk or bread, will be at the back of the store, but you’ll have to walk past lots of things displayed at eye level, grabbing your attention, like homewares or Easter eggs (even though it’s not Easter yet), to get to them. Often, it’s not that we are going for what we desire, but what we see.

How can you design your environment to be more healthy-habit friendly? How can you diminish some of the cues to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do, and how can you bring out those cues that make you do things that you would like to do?

Of course, we can use willpower and motivation, and there are lots of different techniques and tactics we can use to change our habits, but as a starting point, it’s important to get the environment right so you are not fighting unhelpful cues. Use cues to help you improve your healthy habits and your lifestyle, whether that’s time and place or linking them to something you already do. When you pick up your phone to look at the weather or to use the calculator, what happens? It’s unlikely you just use the calculator or look at the weather then put your phone down – so be aware of all those cues around you, those things that are calling your name on your phone, those unhealthier options that are visible. And think about ways you can reduce the unhelpful cues and enhance the helpful ones, and you’ll start seeing the difference it can make.

Perhaps you’ve got some funny stories of when you did something completely on autopilot – leave us a comment, we’d love to hear them!


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