As I write this, I’m sipping on a beautifully smooth cup of Caveman Coffee. It’s single estate Columbian Amber. If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out.

Anyway, I’m supposed to be talking to you about psychology. Specifically, how to use coffee to trigger a new habit. If you’re like most people you have trouble breaking undesirable habits. And creating new, beneficial habits, is just as difficult. That makes this a wonderful little trick.

To understand why this will work, you have to know what a “cue” is.

How to use cues to create habits

A cue in psychology is an internal or external event that triggers a certain behavior. While you can create habits without cues, using them is more effective.

A simple example of a cue is putting your workout clothes in front of your bedroom door before you go to sleep at night. When you wake up, the presence of the clothes will cue you to engage in the behavior of working out.

If you follow through with the workout, you’ll experience some physical and mental benefits. This is a reward, which reinforces the behavior. What you’ve just engaged in is a habit loop.

The loop works like this: cue → behavior → reward.

I can try to create the habit of working out in the morning without the cue, but you can see how having the cue would make me more successful.

The inherent problem with creating cues

People think they’re smart when they figure out how to create cues that prompt new behaviors that they hope to make a habit out of. But, it’s not that simple.

To create a habit with a cue, you need to make creating the cue a habit too. If I forget to lay out my workout clothes one night, the cue won’t be there in the morning. The loop may fail.

The cue has to be a simple act, so there’s little to no resistance with doing it which is why it usually works. But you’re busy. You’re forgetful. You’re human.

You’re also persuasive, and might talk yourself out of setting up the cue when you don’t feel particularly chipper about the prospect of working out in the morning. Trying to manufacture cues for new habits creates a two-decision problem, something I talked about in How to Break Your Soda Habit.

In most situations, I think it’s smarter to leverage rituals.

Leveraging rituals is smarter than creating cues

Cues don’t have to be associated with the desired behavior. I used the example of putting out your workout clothes to cue your workout behavior. You could just as easily cue your workout with a note on the floor.

Since the cue can be anything, why not leverage behaviors you already engage in religiously? I call behaviors you engage in without fail, rituals.

A morning cup of coffee is a popular ritual. If you turn your coffee into a cue for your workout, and you never miss a cup of coffee, guess what else you’ll rarely miss?

There’s a side benefit here too: caffeine triggers an increase in lipolysis, the break down of fatty acids. This primes you for efficient fat burning during your workout. Bonus points.

The best way to do this is to put your workout clothes on immediately after you enjoy your cup of joe. You don’t have to workout immediately, but the act of getting dressed to work out is another behavior that reinforces the habit.

If you don’t workout every day, it’s not a problem. On the off days, go for a short walk. Or a long one. But do something active to maintain the habit. 

There are many different rituals during your day you likely engage in. You can use any of these rituals as cues for the desired behaviors that you’d like to create habits out of.

If you want to break undesirable habits, try to identify the cue that triggers the undesirable behavior. Once you’ve identified the cue, you can avoid it or you can choose a new behavior to follow the cue. It’s harder than it sounds because the mind always resists breaking habits, but the cue is your key to victory.

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