NOTE: This is Step 2 of the PEAK Method for creating new rituals. 

You’re driving down the highway, and suddenly blue lights start flashing behind you.

What happens next?

If you’re like most people, you hit the brakes… and then look down to see how fast you’re going.

This is a perfect example of a cue.

Flashing lights is a cue for you to hit the brakes and check your speed. This reaction happens automatically.

In this post, you’ll learn why 90% of behavior is unconscious… 

You’ll also understand a key principle for creating new habits or positive rituals.

Here’s the skinny on it:

If you want to create habits that stick long-term, you can’t leave it up to your memory.

You MUST create Exact Cues around your new ritual to remind you to do it.

This involves deciding EXACTLY when you’re going to do the new ritual… And then creating a reminder for it.

Also, if you want to stop doing any kind of negative habit, you must become aware of the cues that prompt you to do it.

More on that in a second...

This is Step 2 of the PEAK Method for Ritual Creation

This is Step 2 of our PEAK Method for creating new positive rituals.  The E in PEAK stands for Exact Cues.

If you missed the overview of the PEAK Method… you may want to read that post first.

Also, make sure you’ve read through Step 1 of the PEAK Method, which is about deciding on your Pillar Ritual.

Each step in this process builds on the last, so it’s important that you read them in order.

Alright, let’s explain what a cue is...

What is a Cue in simple terms?

Here’s a simple definition of a “Cue”...

A cue is a reminder to do something! It’s anything that prompts you to do a specific behavior.

Note: Some people call cues “triggers”. The two terms are interchangeable for the purposes of this post.

Think of a cue like this… “When this thing happens first, then this other thing happens.”

There’s always a “cue” or a  “trigger” for every behavior. Something causes it every time, whether you’re aware of the cue or not.

The Three Types of Cues

Generally speaking, there are three types of cues:

  • Internal Cues

  • External Cues 

  • Sequence Cues 

Let’s look at each type of cue a little more…

External Cues

An “External Cue” is when something interrupts you and grabs your attention.

For example, when you hear the doorbell ring, or when someone knocks on your door…

That’s a cue for you to stop what you’re doing and go see who’s at the door.

Or when you see those blue flashing lights and hear a siren behind you... 

That’s an External Cue that causes most people to go into stress mode, “Crap!” Maybe you slow down.

Media companies like Facebook understand the power of using External Cues.

Their notifications prompt you to stop what you’re doing and jump on their platform to check it out…

When you hear the "ding" sound, you think: “Ooh! Someone commented on my post! I wonder what they said?”

Internal Cues

“Internal Cues” are more subtle, but equally powerful. These cues are related to what’s going on inside your body or your mind.

For example, when you start feeling hungry, that’s an Internal Cue that it’s time to eat.

Or here’s a common Internal Cue a lot of people have:

Getting tired while you’re working is a cue to do something mindless like checking your email.

Here’s another Internal Cue Nita used to have: 

“When I’m stressed and tired, I wanna grab a beer and some chips.”

Sometimes, an Internal Cue can be as simple as a thought that pops into your head. 

Sequence Cues:

A “Sequence Cue” is a little more complex to understand. 

It’s when you have a series of two or more habits that happen in a sequence. One happens right after the other.

For example, your morning routine is made up of Sequence Cues.

For example, your morning routine is made up of Sequence Cues.

First, you might take off your pajamas and hop in the shower. You  shower the same way each time, following a particular sequence.

Then you get dressed in the same way each day.

After that, you might brew some coffee for the day.

So your morning routine is a series of small habits stacked together. Finishing one step is a cue to go on to the next step.

Most people are unaware of the cues that prompt their habits

Many psychologists estimate that around 90% of our behavior is automatic/habitual.

This means we’re spending most of our time running on autopilot.

Over time, the more you do a habit the more automatic it becomes.

And you become less aware of the cues that drive your behavior.

For example, you might have a specific way of driving home every day.

The first time you took that route you had to pay attention to your surroundings.

You had to look for the street signs (cues) to know where to turn. Or you listened to your GPS prompts.

By the time you’ve driven that route 10 or 20 or 100 times, you don’t even have to think about it anymore. 

Your brain goes on autopilot and your body takes over. You become less aware of your surroundings, less focused on the cues. 

Eventually, these connections get so strong that you don’t have to think about doing the habit at all. That’s why you can drive home on your normal route and completely forget about how you got there.

In general, habits are a wonderful thing. They free up our energy and attention. They make life way easier. 

The problem is when you have a negative habit that’s tripping you up, and it’s something that’s deeply ingrained...

Key Principle of Behavior Change 

When you’re trying to change your old negative habits, or create new positive rituals…

It’s important to remember this key principle of behavior change:

Always use cues to install new rituals!

You need a cue to remind you of your new ritual because you’re not going to remember to do it at first.

Also, becoming aware of the cues to your Negative Habit helps you gain control of your behavior.

As Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit says:

“Being more aware of what is driving your behavior tends to empower you to actually change those behaviors, and that seems to have a significant impact on how you change on a day-to-day basis.”

Alright, let’s get back to the case study we’ve been using to walk you through the PEAK Method…

And show you how to apply this step (Exact Cues) to Rachel’s new Pillar Ritual…

Step 1: Analyze the Cues of your Negative Habit

In this step, we’re going to ask you to put your detective cap on. We want you to follow the sequence of events that prompts you to do your Negative Habit.

Ask yourself: “Okay, what is happening that is causing my Negative Habit?”

You want to follow the sequence of events that lead to your Negative Habit.

Your Negative Habit might be complex and have a lot of moving pieces to it. But you need to understand the cues (causes) for why you do it.

Jot down a list of cues as they come to you. Remember they could be three types of cues:

  • Internal Cues (“When I get tired, I go check Facebook”)

  • External Cues (“Every time I see that email from John”)

  • Sequence Cues (“This happens first, and then this next thing happens”)

Applying Step 1 to Rachel’s Negative Habit of Staying up late and watching TV

Rachel’s Negative Habit: Staying up late watching TV 

Rachel’s Pillar Ritual: Going to sleep by 10pm

We asked Rachel to re-trace her steps and tell us what would typically happen that caused her to stay up late.

This was a more complex habit. Rachel identified several things that contributed to it. 

Some nights she would stay at the office late to keep working on a project. So she was getting home late. 

Her feeling that she needed to finish a project was her Internal Cue for staying late. 

Then, when she got home her husband would be watching TV. She was tired after working so long... and needed to unwind and relax. She also wanted to catch up with her husband. 

So she would sit down on the couch and watch TV, promising herself to only watch for 10 minutes.

Ten minutes then became “Until the end of this episode”. 

And since TV can be addicting… 

When the episode ended with a lot of suspense, she felt the urge to watch another episode to see what would happen.

Before she knew it, she was getting to bed at 12 or later.

Step 2. Create the Exact Cues for the new Pillar Ritual

Once you’ve gotten clear about the cues that are causing your Negative Habit... 

It’s time to turn your attention to your new Pillar Ritual.

REMEMBER: Don’t leave your new Pillar Ritual up to chance by hoping you’ll remember to do it!

This step of the process is simple: 

You have to decide exactly when and where you’re going to do the new ritual. 

Researcher Peter Gollwitzer coined the term “Action Trigger” to describe this step.

An Action Trigger is a pre-decision about when you’re going to do a particular action. It helps you remember EXACTLY when to do the new ritual.

Action Triggers also help you “preload” the decision. They force you to make a firm decision ahead of time.

That way your Elephant  doesn’t have much chance to say, “Hey, wait a minute! I don’t want to do this right now!” 

You’ve already decided exactly when you’re going to do it, so it makes it more likely you’ll follow through.

Here are two ways to create Exact Cues that work:

There are two main ways to create Exact Cues for your new Pillar Ritual:

1) Create an External Cue that interrupts your normal flow of activity

2) Use a Sequence Cue to tie your new ritual to an old habit that you’re already doing

Let’s give examples for each one of these ways to create Exact Cues.

  1. Creating an External Cue that interrupts your normal flow of activity

This type of cue is more obvious and simple to install.

You’re using some kind of sound or notification to interrupt you and remind you to do the ritual.

Think about things like:

  • Setting an alarm on your phone that reminds you to do your ritual at a specific time
  • Using a notification on an app to remind you 
  • Having a friend call you at the same time each day to check in

External Cues are great when you want to do your ritual at the exact same time every day.

  1. Use a Sequence Cue to tie your new ritual to an old habit that you’re already doing

With this type of cue, you’re creating a link between your new ritual and a habit that you do every day.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, calls this type of cue “habit stacking.” *

You’re stacking a new ritual on top of an old habit you do, or “piggybacking” on another habit.

For this type of cue to work, you need to pick a deeply ingrained behavior or sequence. It should be something you already do everyday.

You want to get very specific with Sequence Cues. That way it interrupts your normal stream of consciousness…

And reminds you at the exact moment to do your new ritual.

Do you remember the unique “mailbox” ritual we described in an earlier post?

Every day our client would drive home from work and pass a certain mailbox in her neighborhood.

She took everything work-related she was thinking about...

And mentally placed it all inside that mailbox. This ritual allowed her to be more present with her kids.

Passing the mailbox was a Sequence Cue that reminded her to do the ritual.

Here are some examples of common habits you can connect your new behavior to:

  • “When I’m brushing my teeth in the morning”
  • “When I put my key in the ignition of my car first thing in the morning”
  • “When my butt first hits my chair before I start working”
  • “When I get my cup of coffee”

Notice how specific the cues are in these examples.  It’s not, “I’ll do it in the morning sometime before I start work.”

Instead it’s “When my butt first hits my chair before I start working.”

Don’t rely on Internal Cues to remember your new ritual!!

We don’t recommend you start a new ritual by using an Internal Cue to remind you.

Internal Cues are harder to remember when you’re first starting a new habit, so they don’t work as well. 

For example, if you’re trying to establish a new ritual of working for an hour then taking a “walk break”…

It’s better to set a timer or alarm that reminds you to do this in the beginning. 

Don’t trust that you’ll realize, “Hey, it’s been an hour and I’m losing focus. I should go for a short walk.”

Once the ritual is firmly in place, you won’t have to be as religious about setting up reminders to prompt you.

You’ll have some powerful Internal Cues to remind you to do it.

For example, Josh has developed an Internal Cue to take a short walk whenever he starts getting tired.

But in the beginning he had to use a timer to prompt him.

Case Study: How Rachel created Exact Cues for her new ritual of going to sleep early

Let’s go back to Rachel’s new ritual of going to sleep by 10pm every night.

Since she wanted to go to bed at the same time every night, Rachel decided to use a series of alarms as External Cues.

She knew that being in bed by ten wasn’t as simple as hopping in bed and falling asleep. 

So she decided to set up a nighttime “wind down sequence”...

A series of alarms on her phone that would help her be get to bed by 10pm:

  • 5:30 -- First phone reminder to turn her computer off

  • 6:00 -- Final phone warning to get off her computer and go home

  • 9:15 -- Phone reminder to stop watching TV and start reading a book 

  • 9:45 -- Alarm to remind her to get into bed

Recapping Step 2 (Exact Cues) of the PEAK Method

Alright, let’s wrap up this step and recap the key points.

Whichever type of cue you decide to use... 

You need to make a decision about the exact place and time you’re going to do your new Pillar Ritual.

Don’t just hope you’ll remember to do the ritual! Don’t leave it up to chance! 

Instead, create an Exact Cue that tells you exactly when and where to do it!

Pick either an External Cue or a Sequence Cue to remind you. 

Over time, your new Pillar Ritual will become a habit and you won’t need the cues.

Note: This is a series about why change is hard, and how to create new rituals that fuel your success. 

*BJ Fogg deserves the credit for the idea of using a “Sequence Cue” or “Habit stacking”.

In his course Tiny Habits, he refers to these types of cues as “Anchors”.

It's called that because you’re using an old habit as an Anchor for a new habit.

We prefer the terms “Sequence Cues” or “habit stacking” because they’re a little clearer.