Creating Habits,  How Habits Work

How To Use Habit Stacking To Create (And Keep) A New Habit

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This post was first published on www.soberish.co.

Habit Stacking 101

If your past pursuits of adopting healthy habits have all ended in failure after a few days or weeks, you are not alone.

Most of us go about creating habits in the wrong way. We rely too heavily on willpower and end up driving ourselves crazy in the process.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way!

I’m going to teach you an easy-to-use method for adopting healthy habits that won’t feel like your life is being turned upside down.

woman running by the sea
how to use habit stacking to create new habits

 

When Willpower Doesn’t Work

When it comes to healthy habits, the “go big or go home” mentality has never worked for me.

I’ve always been a very impulsive person.

I’ll read something on the internet, get inspired, go into my refrigerator and clear out perfectly usable food. Then I’ll buy a bunch of overpriced healthy produce and powders, tell myself that THIS is the new me, and inevitably crash and burn within the week.

RIP wilted kale.

 

Enter the wonderfully effective world of habit stacking.

One of my favorite internet gurus, Mark Manson, said that if self-discipline feels difficult, you’re doing it wrong. He’s absolutely right!

We’re constantly bombarded with messages that healthy habits and achieving goals are products of extreme willpower and self-discipline.

If you can’t do it, it’s because you lack these qualities. For me, attempting to lose weight or not be on my phone so much became further proof of my inherent flaws.

When you can’t overhaul your life through sheer willpower alone, you start build a negative self-image. You begin to brand yourself a failure.

And what a shame! Because here’s the truth: the whole “suck it up, buttercup” approach does not work.

But here’s what does…

 

The Art of Habit Stacking

Longterm, sustainable habits are a slow process.

The faster you accept that, the better off you’ll be. Yes, there are people for whom major life events serve as catalysts for instant transformations. For the vast majority of people, however, a consistent, small steps approach is the most effective.

Habit stacking is one way to get there.

woman starting the healthy habit of walking every day
how to create habit stacks

 

What is habit stacking?

Habit stacking is a method by which you stack habits one on top of the other in order to make them stick.

You start by identifying the habits that are already second-nature to you, like brushing your teeth or drinking coffee in the morning, and attaching a new, healthy habit onto them as a way of easily integrating it into your routine.

By attaching this new habit onto an existing one, you’re helping your brain to adopt it more seamlessly.

I’ll give you an example.

Let’s say you want to start a daily meditation practice. Think about a natural place in your morning routine where you could insert one minute of mindfulness (start small). Maybe there’s some peace and quiet available after you brush your teeth.

You’ll make a new commitment (I suggest writing it down). “Every day, after I brush my teeth in the morning, I will meditate for one minute.”

You’ve now attached the new habit (meditation) to one that you naturally do every day (brushing your teeth). Plus, you’ve done it in such a way that it’s not overly burdensome.

It’s one minute, after all.

Once your post-teeth-brushing meditation becomes more automatic for you, you can begin to increase your time.

 

Why does habit stacking work?

You all know that I love James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, which helped me dive a little deeper into the ins and outs of habit stacking. He gives a very good breakdown of the science behind this method.

Our brains create habits through a process called synaptic pruning. The summarized version goes like this:

  • As we age, our brains prune away connections (synapses) between neurons that don’t get used, and
  • Builds up connections between neurons that do

Our habits are a result of the connections that our brain has nourished and strengthened over the years. By attaching a new habit onto one that already has a strong connection in our brain, we’re increasing the chances that we stick with it.

 

How To Create Habit Stacks That Work

As with everything, there are some best practices you need to follow when creating a habit stack. First, you need to attach it to the right cue.

How do you know which cue is the right one?

  • It needs to happen at a time and place that is conducive to the habit you’re trying to create
  • It needs to be attached to an existing habit that is the same frequency you would like to commit to the new habit

If you’re trying to incorporate journaling into your mornings, don’t schedule it for a time you’re likely to be interrupted. Additionally, if you want journaling to be a daily habit, you need to attach it to another daily habit.

James Clear recommends the following habit stacking formula:

 After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]

Very simple!

Here’s a simple example from my own life:

After I drink water in the morning, I will do at least five minutes of yoga.

Nothing earth shattering there, but it makes a difference! My body and brain feel more alert. The more I do this, the longer I’m able to extend my practice.

 

Building Your Habit Stacks

Once your basic habit stacks have become fully integrated into your life, you can start to expand the newer habit (ex. adding more time to your workout or meditation). You can also add on to your stack.

You do this by chaining small habits together that naturally fit. Here’s how my morning stack is currently set up:

Wake up > Drink water > Do yoga > Get daughter dressed and ready for day > Take shower > Start working

They all naturally build on one another and don’t feel burdensome.

It’s important to not add too much too quickly, as well. There’s no prize for biggest stack here.

 

Start Slow – This Is A Marathon, Not A Sprint

It’s very easy to get into the mindset that if it isn’t hard, it isn’t working.

Don’t do that!

You should not create lengthy stacks right off the bat. Begin with one basic stack. Do that for as long as it takes to feel comfortable with it and then add on.

If you increase your stack too quickly without giving your brain a chance to strengthen the new connections, you’ll find yourself having to rely more heavily on willpower to keep it going.

That’s not what you’re trying to do.

You aren’t trying to suppress or deprive yourself. You’re trying to add in healthier things that you enjoy. BUT, you have to give your brain a chance to get used to it.

You also do not want to do too much too soon because you’ll increase the chances that you’ll skip things because you don’t have time.

I’ll give you a personal example:

My goal is to wake up at 5:30 AM so I can have a bigger habit stack in the morning that won’t be interrupted by my daughter or husband. Because I’m currently working on getting better quality sleep, I haven’t gotten to 5:30 AM yet.

So, I keep the part of habit stack that I do before the kiddo is needing attention pretty short.

It’s not always possible to create the ideal stack, but you do the best you can with what you’ve got at the time.

 

Start Building Your First Habit Stack

beautiful woman on beach practicing meditation habit
begin creating your habit stacks

You can start tomorrow if you’d like.

Choose one, small thing to begin and give yourself at least a week before adding on.

I like to start with morning habits, but honestly any time of day that works for you is fine. Write down your daily habits on a piece of paper and look for places where you can add one small, new habit.

If you want to eat healthier snacks, for example you can find a time in your day where you always do the same thing that would be an ideal time for snacking.

Let’s say at 10:15 AM you take a bathroom break at work. Once you come back from the bathroom, you eat an apple or banana.

That’s it. That’s your stack.

Once you get the hang of that, you can build on your current stack or create new ones.

My suggestion is to start with your biggest priority. If it’s weight loss, you’ll want to find ways to add healthier food choices into your existing habits. If you start your morning with coffee or tea, you can add a bowl of oatmeal to that habit (or whatever healthy breakfast item you want).

After I drink coffee, I eat a bowl of oatmeal.

Leave it at that for a week or two and then add another step.

After I drink coffee, I eat a bowl of oatmeal. After I finish my oatmeal, I pack grapes and bananas in my lunch bag for snacks. 

As this stack grows, it will be easier to incorporate additional systems for eating healthy foods on a daily basis.

Healthy Habits Take Time

We live in an age of instant-gratification and low attention span, neither of which bodes well for building new habits with staying power.

Most people cannot make huge, sweeping changes at once and sustain them. That’s because rapid transformations like these require tremendous amounts of willpower which humans are not designed to maintain. We get decision fatigue and cave.

That’s why more and more experts are encouraging us to tackle habits differently.

Sustainable change happens one healthy snack, one chapter, and one push-up at a time. It’s not very sexy or glamorous. There’s not typically an Insta-worthy 30-day transformation, and you know what?

That’s perfectly okay.

You’re not doing this for likes for affirmation. If you want to truly change who you are, start small, have patience, and be consistent.

You got this!