How to Use “Cues” to Form Intentional Habits

Learn how to use "cues" to help create positive thinking habits.

I was recently sharing with a group of friends how frustrated I am that I cannot sustain new habits. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I find myself unable to do the things that are good for me. Instead, I turn to bad habits and lesser goods. My friend, a speech therapist with a wonderfully merciful heart, heard all this grumbling and shared with me a principle she uses with her clients — a principle that I’ve recently become a little obsessed with. 

There is a term in speech therapy called cueing, or more specifically, max cueing. Max cueing is when the patient passes a skill as the direct result of the therapist’s promptings. If you pass a skill with “max cueing,” it doesn’t matter if you need the therapist to cue you every single time; it doesn’t even matter if you respond appropriately every time, it just means that for most of the time you heard the cue, you responded appropriately. 

I love this concept. It combines the gamifying element of habit stacking, made popular by James Clear’s Atomic Habits, with a hefty dose of mercy.

If this is still hard for you to wrap your brain around, think of the Angelus prayer as an example of max cueing. The Angelus can usually be said in no more than a few minutes, it alternates three short Gospel passages with three Hail Marys in an incredibly concise retelling of the moment God became man. As early as the 12th century, church bells would ring out in the early morning, noon, and night to remind anyone in the surrounding area it was time to pray the Angelus. Multiple times a day, everyone’s attention turned to something greater than themselves. The best part is, they didn’t even need to initiate the relationship; they just had to respond to the cue — whether they were walking through town or working in a field. It’s genius really, it gives us fallible humans with incredibly short attention spans the opportunity to turn back into relationship with Jesus. 

In my own life, I’ve wanted to start my day with a consecration for years and never made any consistent progress. A consecration doesn’t need to be anything elaborate, just a few intentional moments in the morning for me to talk to God and remember that, everything I’m doing that day, I’m doing for the love of Him. I eventually realized part of my problem is that my morning routine is constantly changing, especially with small kids at home and a community of friends that meet early in the morning. In fact, there is only one singular event that happens without fail every morning: I feel overwhelmed. Now, this immediate feeling of anxiety is my new cue to consecrate my day to Jesus. The irony is, the thing that made me feel like such a failure, is now the thing that brings me back into communion. It’s been four months now and my streak has stayed strong.

I’ve since found myself on the hunt for other cues, other ways I can open my eyes to the promptings that are already around me. For now, they’re cues like standing dates with friends who love me and memorized prayers before a meal. They can even be cues that I create, like placing my bike on the front porch so I have to pass it on the way to my car or filling up my next day’s water bottle before I go to bed at night. The most important thing for me to remember is that my success is not about my own effort, it’s about giving myself as many opportunities to succeed as possible; and being gentle with myself when I inevitably fail. 

The historian and writer Will Durant wrote (in summarizing Aristotle), “We are what we repeatedly do.” So, what do you repeatedly do? And how can you leverage those cues into intentional habits that have the possibility to truly transform your life, little by little?

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