diverse set of habits
January 30, 2024

Building habits with visual cues: a practical guide

Habits and routines rely on specific cues and contexts, making them fragile. To maintain them, choose striking, consistent, and actionable cues, as disruptions are natural and not a sign of failure.

Maaya Hitomi

Maaya is an ADHD coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind @StructuredSuccess

Summary

  • Routines—any series of actions we regularly do in the same way—can be incredibly fragile; If our context changes our routines often do too.
  • Routines simply cannot exist without a cue, or a signal to start the routine. The best cues are:
  • Striking. They force themselves into our awareness, making them hard to ignore, such as making them unavoidable sensory or environmental cues.
  • Consistent. Cues are clearly and consistently related to the routine, happening in the same way and/or at the same time each time.
  • Actionable. Make sure you can do the routine when the cue prompts you to. While routines can be related to specific times, using events, other routines, or environments as cues is particularly robust.
  • Ultimately however, no routine is forever. Needing to rebuild is not a sign of failure, but a sign of change.

The Fragility of Habits and Routines: Understanding the Role of Context

Habits and routines can be incredibly fragile. One day, you can wake up and realise that you haven’t completed a routine in days, weeks, or months. It seemingly popped right out of your head, and now it feels uncomfortably foreign, like you’re starting from square one again. This is surprisingly common, and it happens because habits and routines are highly context dependent. So, let’s talk about the role of context in maintaining habits and how to increase the probability that your routines don’t disappear with the first stiff wind.

What are routines?

Essentially, routines are any series of actions we regularly do in the same way. Routines can be fixtures of our day-to-day lives (such as our commute to work/school), an important means of structuring long-term projects (such as working on a university thesis), or a structure for developing skills (such as practising an instrument or language). The more often you do the routine, the more automatic it will become and the less cognitive effort and executive function it will require. The most successful routines usually have 4 key components: a cue, a meaningful motivation, the routine itself, and a reward.

morning routine with visual checklist
A morning routine with a visual checklist


The Importance of Context

Routines simply cannot exist without a cue, or a signal to start the routine. Once a cue occurs, we have to recognize it and initiate the routine. If we do so (and this results in a benefit or reward), the relationship between the cue and the routine increases and it becomes more likely the cue will successfully initiate the routine in future.

However, if there is no cue or if the cue is disrupted, the routine is much less likely to happen. Imagine, for example, that your alarm doesn’t go off in the morning. Without this cue, you are much less likely to wake up when you intended to. This is similar to the relationship between cues and routines more generally: If a cue disappears, or if it changes substantially, it becomes much less likely that the routine will happen (sometimes without us even noticing). All of this is why the best cues are striking, consistent, and actionable.


Picking the Best Cues

To give us the best chance to recognize it, a cue should metaphorically get in our way. It should be striking; forcing itself into our awareness and making itself hard to ignore. One way to do this is to make the cue strikingly visual. 

Clear, obvious visuals stand out in a way few other things do. For a lot of people, especially those who struggle with working memory or executive functioning, visual cues are better for working memory precisely because the reminder remains even if we’ve forgotten about it since seeing it last. 

Examples of cues like this include visual cue cards for aspects of our routine, room lighting that gets noticeably dimmer as our bedtime approaches, or a checklist on the doorknob reminding us to grab our phone, keys, wallet, and mask. 

Other sensory cues, such as auditory cues or touch-based cues, can similarly support working memory, so long as the cue remains until the routine is initiated. If, however, the alarm stops or we move away from the touch-based cue, our working memory isn’t being supported, and if we forget the next step, there may be no returning to the cue. 

This means that an alarm that doesn’t turn off until we’ve taken our meds, for example, would work better than an alarm that gets dismissed before the routine is complete.

The best cues are also consistent, where the cue and the action that follows it is the same every single time. If many different cues are all trying to start the same action, or if one cue is trying to start many different actions, the relationship between the cue and the routine is going to be much harder to build and you are going to be much less likely to complete the routine. In these situations, removing decision points often make the cue and action more consistent and make the routine more reliable.

For example, instead of using leaving work as a cue to initiate a bunch of different ways of getting dinner, you may connect the cue of leaving work with always stopping by the grocery store to make it more consistent.

Most importantly, the best cues are actionable, meaning that you act on the routine when the cue prompts you to. While this probably sounds obvious, it often becomes a barrier when the cue isn’t naturally related to the habit or routine you’re trying to build. For example, if you have an alarm set as a cue to brush your teeth, the cue is going to happen at the same time every day regardless of where you are physically. If you are out of the house when the alarm goes off, you can’t (usually) act on that cue, meaning that it’s no longer actionable.

One way to get around this barrier is to use the necessary equipment for completing a routine as part of the cue.

Seeing your knitting project could be a visual cue to work on that project, but having it on the knitting needles near to your yarn would make the cue more actionable.

Alternatively, you can use environmental changes, events, or even other routines as actionable cues to initiate a specific routine action.

My partner and I, for example, have set the lights to dim and the temperature to get colder as an environment cue for going to bed.

When completing the last step of a habit or routine serves as the cue for starting the next one, this is known as habit stacking. This is a particularly powerful way of expanding on existing habits or directing them towards bigger goals.

Daily planning designed to change your life.

Visualize time. Build focus. Make life happen. Tiimo is designed for people with ADHD, Autism, and everyone who thinks, works, and plans differently.

Get started with our free trial. Cancel anytime.

When Disruption Happens

Given enough time, life gets in the way, our context changes, and our cues disappear. When this happens, our routines and habits are usually disrupted as well. These disruptions are particularly likely if our cue is primarily internal, such as an urge, impulse, or memory, regardless of the strength of our motivation or the importance of the outcome. Using striking, consistent, external cues that we act on right away can go a long way to supporting the habits we are working to develop.

Ultimately however, no routine is forever. Eventually, we are going to have to modify our cues and rebuild our routines. This is not a sign of failure, but a sign of change. So, don’t get down on yourself; you can rebuild. If you’re looking for a resource to support that, including more information on the other three components of successful routines, check out our Habit Loop Worksheet for more information.

January 30, 2024

Building habits with visual cues: a practical guide

Habits and routines rely on specific cues and contexts, making them fragile. To maintain them, choose striking, consistent, and actionable cues, as disruptions are natural and not a sign of failure.

Maaya Hitomi

Maaya is an ADHD coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind @StructuredSuccess

Summary

  • Routines—any series of actions we regularly do in the same way—can be incredibly fragile; If our context changes our routines often do too.
  • Routines simply cannot exist without a cue, or a signal to start the routine. The best cues are:
  • Striking. They force themselves into our awareness, making them hard to ignore, such as making them unavoidable sensory or environmental cues.
  • Consistent. Cues are clearly and consistently related to the routine, happening in the same way and/or at the same time each time.
  • Actionable. Make sure you can do the routine when the cue prompts you to. While routines can be related to specific times, using events, other routines, or environments as cues is particularly robust.
  • Ultimately however, no routine is forever. Needing to rebuild is not a sign of failure, but a sign of change.

The Fragility of Habits and Routines: Understanding the Role of Context

Habits and routines can be incredibly fragile. One day, you can wake up and realise that you haven’t completed a routine in days, weeks, or months. It seemingly popped right out of your head, and now it feels uncomfortably foreign, like you’re starting from square one again. This is surprisingly common, and it happens because habits and routines are highly context dependent. So, let’s talk about the role of context in maintaining habits and how to increase the probability that your routines don’t disappear with the first stiff wind.

What are routines?

Essentially, routines are any series of actions we regularly do in the same way. Routines can be fixtures of our day-to-day lives (such as our commute to work/school), an important means of structuring long-term projects (such as working on a university thesis), or a structure for developing skills (such as practising an instrument or language). The more often you do the routine, the more automatic it will become and the less cognitive effort and executive function it will require. The most successful routines usually have 4 key components: a cue, a meaningful motivation, the routine itself, and a reward.

morning routine with visual checklist
A morning routine with a visual checklist


The Importance of Context

Routines simply cannot exist without a cue, or a signal to start the routine. Once a cue occurs, we have to recognize it and initiate the routine. If we do so (and this results in a benefit or reward), the relationship between the cue and the routine increases and it becomes more likely the cue will successfully initiate the routine in future.

However, if there is no cue or if the cue is disrupted, the routine is much less likely to happen. Imagine, for example, that your alarm doesn’t go off in the morning. Without this cue, you are much less likely to wake up when you intended to. This is similar to the relationship between cues and routines more generally: If a cue disappears, or if it changes substantially, it becomes much less likely that the routine will happen (sometimes without us even noticing). All of this is why the best cues are striking, consistent, and actionable.


Picking the Best Cues

To give us the best chance to recognize it, a cue should metaphorically get in our way. It should be striking; forcing itself into our awareness and making itself hard to ignore. One way to do this is to make the cue strikingly visual. 

Clear, obvious visuals stand out in a way few other things do. For a lot of people, especially those who struggle with working memory or executive functioning, visual cues are better for working memory precisely because the reminder remains even if we’ve forgotten about it since seeing it last. 

Examples of cues like this include visual cue cards for aspects of our routine, room lighting that gets noticeably dimmer as our bedtime approaches, or a checklist on the doorknob reminding us to grab our phone, keys, wallet, and mask. 

Other sensory cues, such as auditory cues or touch-based cues, can similarly support working memory, so long as the cue remains until the routine is initiated. If, however, the alarm stops or we move away from the touch-based cue, our working memory isn’t being supported, and if we forget the next step, there may be no returning to the cue. 

This means that an alarm that doesn’t turn off until we’ve taken our meds, for example, would work better than an alarm that gets dismissed before the routine is complete.

The best cues are also consistent, where the cue and the action that follows it is the same every single time. If many different cues are all trying to start the same action, or if one cue is trying to start many different actions, the relationship between the cue and the routine is going to be much harder to build and you are going to be much less likely to complete the routine. In these situations, removing decision points often make the cue and action more consistent and make the routine more reliable.

For example, instead of using leaving work as a cue to initiate a bunch of different ways of getting dinner, you may connect the cue of leaving work with always stopping by the grocery store to make it more consistent.

Most importantly, the best cues are actionable, meaning that you act on the routine when the cue prompts you to. While this probably sounds obvious, it often becomes a barrier when the cue isn’t naturally related to the habit or routine you’re trying to build. For example, if you have an alarm set as a cue to brush your teeth, the cue is going to happen at the same time every day regardless of where you are physically. If you are out of the house when the alarm goes off, you can’t (usually) act on that cue, meaning that it’s no longer actionable.

One way to get around this barrier is to use the necessary equipment for completing a routine as part of the cue.

Seeing your knitting project could be a visual cue to work on that project, but having it on the knitting needles near to your yarn would make the cue more actionable.

Alternatively, you can use environmental changes, events, or even other routines as actionable cues to initiate a specific routine action.

My partner and I, for example, have set the lights to dim and the temperature to get colder as an environment cue for going to bed.

When completing the last step of a habit or routine serves as the cue for starting the next one, this is known as habit stacking. This is a particularly powerful way of expanding on existing habits or directing them towards bigger goals.

Daily planning designed to change your life.

Visualize time. Build focus. Make life happen. Tiimo is designed for people with ADHD, Autism, and everyone who thinks, works, and plans differently.

Get started with our free trial. Cancel anytime.

When Disruption Happens

Given enough time, life gets in the way, our context changes, and our cues disappear. When this happens, our routines and habits are usually disrupted as well. These disruptions are particularly likely if our cue is primarily internal, such as an urge, impulse, or memory, regardless of the strength of our motivation or the importance of the outcome. Using striking, consistent, external cues that we act on right away can go a long way to supporting the habits we are working to develop.

Ultimately however, no routine is forever. Eventually, we are going to have to modify our cues and rebuild our routines. This is not a sign of failure, but a sign of change. So, don’t get down on yourself; you can rebuild. If you’re looking for a resource to support that, including more information on the other three components of successful routines, check out our Habit Loop Worksheet for more information.

Building habits with visual cues: a practical guide
January 30, 2024

Building habits with visual cues: a practical guide

Habits and routines rely on specific cues and contexts, making them fragile. To maintain them, choose striking, consistent, and actionable cues, as disruptions are natural and not a sign of failure.

Georgina Shute

Georgina is an ADHD coach and digital leader. She set up KindTwo to empower as many people as possible to work with Neurodiversity - not against it.

Summary

  • Routines—any series of actions we regularly do in the same way—can be incredibly fragile; If our context changes our routines often do too.
  • Routines simply cannot exist without a cue, or a signal to start the routine. The best cues are:
  • Striking. They force themselves into our awareness, making them hard to ignore, such as making them unavoidable sensory or environmental cues.
  • Consistent. Cues are clearly and consistently related to the routine, happening in the same way and/or at the same time each time.
  • Actionable. Make sure you can do the routine when the cue prompts you to. While routines can be related to specific times, using events, other routines, or environments as cues is particularly robust.
  • Ultimately however, no routine is forever. Needing to rebuild is not a sign of failure, but a sign of change.

The Fragility of Habits and Routines: Understanding the Role of Context

Habits and routines can be incredibly fragile. One day, you can wake up and realise that you haven’t completed a routine in days, weeks, or months. It seemingly popped right out of your head, and now it feels uncomfortably foreign, like you’re starting from square one again. This is surprisingly common, and it happens because habits and routines are highly context dependent. So, let’s talk about the role of context in maintaining habits and how to increase the probability that your routines don’t disappear with the first stiff wind.

What are routines?

Essentially, routines are any series of actions we regularly do in the same way. Routines can be fixtures of our day-to-day lives (such as our commute to work/school), an important means of structuring long-term projects (such as working on a university thesis), or a structure for developing skills (such as practising an instrument or language). The more often you do the routine, the more automatic it will become and the less cognitive effort and executive function it will require. The most successful routines usually have 4 key components: a cue, a meaningful motivation, the routine itself, and a reward.

morning routine with visual checklist
A morning routine with a visual checklist


The Importance of Context

Routines simply cannot exist without a cue, or a signal to start the routine. Once a cue occurs, we have to recognize it and initiate the routine. If we do so (and this results in a benefit or reward), the relationship between the cue and the routine increases and it becomes more likely the cue will successfully initiate the routine in future.

However, if there is no cue or if the cue is disrupted, the routine is much less likely to happen. Imagine, for example, that your alarm doesn’t go off in the morning. Without this cue, you are much less likely to wake up when you intended to. This is similar to the relationship between cues and routines more generally: If a cue disappears, or if it changes substantially, it becomes much less likely that the routine will happen (sometimes without us even noticing). All of this is why the best cues are striking, consistent, and actionable.


Picking the Best Cues

To give us the best chance to recognize it, a cue should metaphorically get in our way. It should be striking; forcing itself into our awareness and making itself hard to ignore. One way to do this is to make the cue strikingly visual. 

Clear, obvious visuals stand out in a way few other things do. For a lot of people, especially those who struggle with working memory or executive functioning, visual cues are better for working memory precisely because the reminder remains even if we’ve forgotten about it since seeing it last. 

Examples of cues like this include visual cue cards for aspects of our routine, room lighting that gets noticeably dimmer as our bedtime approaches, or a checklist on the doorknob reminding us to grab our phone, keys, wallet, and mask. 

Other sensory cues, such as auditory cues or touch-based cues, can similarly support working memory, so long as the cue remains until the routine is initiated. If, however, the alarm stops or we move away from the touch-based cue, our working memory isn’t being supported, and if we forget the next step, there may be no returning to the cue. 

This means that an alarm that doesn’t turn off until we’ve taken our meds, for example, would work better than an alarm that gets dismissed before the routine is complete.

The best cues are also consistent, where the cue and the action that follows it is the same every single time. If many different cues are all trying to start the same action, or if one cue is trying to start many different actions, the relationship between the cue and the routine is going to be much harder to build and you are going to be much less likely to complete the routine. In these situations, removing decision points often make the cue and action more consistent and make the routine more reliable.

For example, instead of using leaving work as a cue to initiate a bunch of different ways of getting dinner, you may connect the cue of leaving work with always stopping by the grocery store to make it more consistent.

Most importantly, the best cues are actionable, meaning that you act on the routine when the cue prompts you to. While this probably sounds obvious, it often becomes a barrier when the cue isn’t naturally related to the habit or routine you’re trying to build. For example, if you have an alarm set as a cue to brush your teeth, the cue is going to happen at the same time every day regardless of where you are physically. If you are out of the house when the alarm goes off, you can’t (usually) act on that cue, meaning that it’s no longer actionable.

One way to get around this barrier is to use the necessary equipment for completing a routine as part of the cue.

Seeing your knitting project could be a visual cue to work on that project, but having it on the knitting needles near to your yarn would make the cue more actionable.

Alternatively, you can use environmental changes, events, or even other routines as actionable cues to initiate a specific routine action.

My partner and I, for example, have set the lights to dim and the temperature to get colder as an environment cue for going to bed.

When completing the last step of a habit or routine serves as the cue for starting the next one, this is known as habit stacking. This is a particularly powerful way of expanding on existing habits or directing them towards bigger goals.

When Disruption Happens

Given enough time, life gets in the way, our context changes, and our cues disappear. When this happens, our routines and habits are usually disrupted as well. These disruptions are particularly likely if our cue is primarily internal, such as an urge, impulse, or memory, regardless of the strength of our motivation or the importance of the outcome. Using striking, consistent, external cues that we act on right away can go a long way to supporting the habits we are working to develop.

Ultimately however, no routine is forever. Eventually, we are going to have to modify our cues and rebuild our routines. This is not a sign of failure, but a sign of change. So, don’t get down on yourself; you can rebuild. If you’re looking for a resource to support that, including more information on the other three components of successful routines, check out our Habit Loop Worksheet for more information.

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