One Tip You Can Use To Form Long-Term Good Habits

Psychologist Torsten Martiny-Huenger talks about the importance of 'situational cues’ when planning for the future.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 1, 2022

A new study published in PLOS ONE explains how we can make long-term behavioral changes by using 'if-then' action planning instead of relying purely on motivation or willpower.

I recently spoke to Psychologist Torsten Martiny-Huenger from UiT The Arctic University of Norway to understand how and why including 'situational cues' to prompt intended behavior can help us develop better habits. Here is a summary of our conversation:

What inspired you to investigate the topic of situational cues in the context of intended actions?

Recent decades have been dominated by strength models ("willpower") of self-control. We were inspired by alternative perspectives highlighting the role of "good" habits in showing self-control in everyday behavior (e.g., regularly exercising and eating healthy food).

Habits (good or bad) result from repeated past experiences of executing a specific behavior in a particular situation. Situational cues are critical in habits as the perception of the cues triggers the responses. An open question, however, is how novel behaviors become habits. We do not have the prior experiences that make them habitual. So, how are they formed?

We hypothesized that we can create novel cue-behavior (or stimulus-response) links not just by repeatedly executing them in a specific situation but also by merely thinking about performing the behavior in the situation – in other words, by creating stimulus-response links in thought.

Could you walk us through how we go about executing intended actions in normal life versus when we include situational cues to achieve the same response?

I'm not sure we get around the situational cues. The critical question may be how systematically an intended response is linked to relevant cues.

Suppose you agree to do a friend a favor, for example, sending a web address that you have as a bookmark on your home computer. You can't access the bookmark right away. How are we able to complete the task some hours later?

One, albeit somewhat unrealistic, possibility is to verbally repeat it to yourself continuously (i.e., keep it active in working memory). However, given the many demands of our daily life, it is unlikely that we can remain focused in such a way for a prolonged amount of time.

Researchers in prospective memory provide another possible mechanism. Some suggest that such an intention (sending the bookmark later) activates a monitoring process that we are not or only minimally aware of. Situational cues are essential as the process monitors for relevant cues that indicate good opportunities to initiate the intended behavior. While it is out of the question that there are many mechanisms that we are little or not aware of, such mechanisms are also hard to study. Thus, it is hard to verify whether a specific assumption like such a subconscious monitoring process exists or not.

The third alternative merely depends on the brain's ability to form associative links. The intention to send the web address may be linked to some situational cues. Even thinking about something else, and without a dedicated monitoring mechanism, the associative link would ensure that the mere perception of such a cue triggers recollecting the intention. Arguably, the activation through such links may often be incidental in everyday life.

For example, while reading emails on your home computer, the friend may be referred to in one of the emails (situational cue). This cue then triggers the recollection of having to send the bookmark. Or one of the emails may include another, unrelated request, and the mere superficial similarity of the "completing a request" thought may trigger the recollection of the other open request to send the web address to your friend.

We can, however, decrease the dependency on such incidental recollection. A self-regulation strategy can increase the likelihood of completing such tasks. If-then action planning has been introduced by Peter Gollwitzer, a researcher at NYU.

The central aspect of this specific form of planning is to strategically link an intended response to a critical situational cue.

For example, when receiving the web-address request, I can think to myself repeatedly, "the next time I start my home computer, I'll first send my friend the web address." So, instead of relying on some coincidence to remind me about the intention, I can strategically link the intention to a situation that I will encounter later, and that provides a good opportunity to complete it.

Much research indicates that making such if-then plans, which are nothing more than verbal situation-response links, facilitate remembering and executing intended behaviors in the anticipated situation.

Our research is an extension of this idea.

What methodology did you adopt for your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

We used questionnaires to assess whether a participant is more or less likely to think in this situation-response format and questionnaires that measure participants' own beliefs about how good they are in their day-to-day self-regulation.

To ensure that participants understood what we mean by including situational cues when thinking about intended behavior, we provided them with a few examples. They were all along the lines that one could either think about intentions without including situational cues ("I need to do/remember to send the web address") or including cues ("When I'm home/in front of the computer, then I'll send the web address"). After participants understood the difference, we used a questionnaire that had previously been used to assess thought habits and adopted the question content to fit the inclusion of situational cues.

We used two different questionnaires that are well-established tools to measure beliefs about one's ability to make progress with personal goals (i.e., self-regulation success). While the questionnaires measure self-reported beliefs, and some people may under or overestimate their success, these beliefs generally result from our experiences with self-regulation success in the past and should thus be good approximations.

Our central result is finding the hypothesized (and pre-registered) positive relationship. The more a participant indicated to include situational cues when thinking about intended future behavior, the higher were these participants' self-reported self-regulation success. While correlational studies are always somewhat open to alternative interpretations, this relationship aligns with the idea that including situational cues when thinking about intended behaviors may increase the likelihood of completing them.

Are there certain personality types that have a natural inclination towards adding situational cues to achieve intended actions in the future?

Yes, we have some preliminary (we did not hypothesize and pre-register them) evidence that the personality trait of conscientiousness relates to adding situational cues when thinking about intended future behavior.

This is not surprising as consciousness is characterized by habitual planning behaviors like making lists and using a calendar.

Our interpretation is that thinking in a situation-response format is one of the cognitive procedures that conscientious people are habitually doing. This intuitive use of a beneficial strategy contributes to being more successful in day-to-day self-regulation.

How do you see your research translating into people's daily lives? Do you have any advice for people who often miss the mark when it comes to executing intended actions?

From a practical perspective, our present research is an extension of previously formulated ideas of strategic if-then action planning. Our research further highlights the importance of situational cues.

When dealing with behaviors that we cannot execute right away (whether these are requests or personal goals) we may think that motivation is the key. While motivation is certainly important, it is often not enough. More motivation may increase the likelihood of incidentally remembering an intention throughout the day, but it may not make us recollect an intention at a specific, critical point in time when we are preoccupied with other thought.

So, the practical advice is to link the intended behavior to salient situational cues that provide good opportunities to initiate them. When you want to get a little more physically active, then repeatedly think to yourself "When I'm waiting in front of the elevator, I'll turn around and use the stairs". Such if-then planning is not magic, and it will not lead to successful implementation of the intended behavior every time, but it will increase the likelihood of completing them.