Use Habit Stacking To Change Your Behavior and Create New Routines

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Maddy Osman
Maddy Osman

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Humans are creatures of habit — we have set routines, and it can be hard to deviate from them. For a lot of people, this makes adopting new habits really hard.

what is habit stacking

According to a 2021 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, it takes adults a median of 59 days to fully develop a new habit. Plus, researchers found that daily repetition of the new habit was necessary in order for it to become a natural part of the participant’s routine.

Fifty-nine days is a long time to devote to developing a single habit — especially in the world of business and entrepreneurship. But here’s the good news: Once a habit is established, it sticks for a long time.

And here’s the even better news: You don’t have to start from scratch each time you want to form a new habit. You can cheat a little by tricking your brain into associating a new habit with a current one.

Known as habit stacking, this technique works by linking the action of an old habit with a new one so that the two become intertwined in your brain. Used correctly, habit stacking can help you build stronger and longer-lasting daily routines.

What is habit stacking?

Habit stacking was coined by author S. J. Scott in his 2014 book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less. But it really wasn’t until James Clear popularized the idea in his bestselling book Atomic Habits that habit stacking really took off.

The idea behind habit stacking is simple: to create a new habit, all you have to do is “stack it” (associate it) with a current habit. In other words, if you want a new habit to stick, you should perform it right before or after something that already comes naturally to you.

Here’s an example: Say you want to drink a glass of water every morning before work. You could try to remember to drink it or set an alarm, but you’d still have to repeat the action over and over again for it to stick.

The smarter thing to do would be to associate drinking water with a habit that’s already ingrained in your brain, like brushing your teeth. This is precisely what habit stacking does. 

Here’s how it could work: You’d make it a rule that every time you brushed your teeth, you’d have to drink a glass of water right after. Over time, the habit of brushing your teeth would (no pun intended) brush off on drinking the glass of water, leading to a newly ingrained habit.

The more you do the two actions together, the more you begin to associate drinking a glass of water with brushing your teeth: As soon as you’ve done one, it’s time to do the other; the two habits would become linked together in your brain.

And once the new habit is glued to the old one, it’s difficult to pry them apart, which is good news for your routines. The stronger your habit-stacking links, the less likely it is that you’ll skip over or forget to do a new habit.

Sounds a little too easy, doesn’t it?

But habit stacking works because of the way it hijacks two essential elements in habit formation: context and familiarity.

The importance of context and familiarity in habit formation

A 2022 study examines the importance of context and familiarity in forming new habits. Researchers did this by comparing two groups of students who were attempting to adopt a new daily habit.

Both groups were required to perform their new habit daily. But while one group did their new activity at the same time and place each day, the second group didn’t. Sometimes the second group would perform the habit in the morning, other times at night, in whichever location they chose.

The researchers found that participants in the more consistent group were more likely to repeat their habit without breaking it, and more likely to report the habit as feeling “automatic” — in other words, natural.

Habit stacking works the same way but takes it a step further: Instead of having to create a new context and familiarity for each habit, you can associate the ones you’ve already developed with a current habit, thus skipping that step altogether. 

When you combine an existing habit — like your daily meeting — with one you want to achieve — like a quick set of pushups — it’s much easier to complete these actions when you regularly perform them together.

Habit stacking ideas

Here are a few tips and recommendations to help you integrate habit stacking into your professional and personal life.

Start with small steps

Boston-based psychotherapist Angela Ficken recommends keeping things simple. “Start with one or two habit stacks initially to avoid overwhelming yourself,” she says. 

She also suggests doing the complete stack for at least 21 days in a row to help it really become part of your routine. Once you’re comfortable with your tiny habit stack, feel free to integrate more into your practice.

Track your progress

Consider stacking another habit and journaling your progress; having a written record that shows when you completed a habit helps you stay motivated.

Michael Dadashi, founder of Infinite Recovery Rehabilitation Center in Austin, Texas, expresses the importance of tracking your habit development this way: “I can see the progress I’m making toward my overall goal, and this encourages me to keep pushing forward.”

You might find a bullet journal or to-do list useful for tracking how often you complete a habit. Alternatively, you can use an app to keep yourself on track, like those mentioned below. 

There’s an app for that

You can find ideas and help with habit stacking from tons of apps nowadays. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Habit Stacker: This sleek app helps you track and stack habits onto existing ones, stay accountable with friends, and schedule regular reminders.
  • Organize Me: This bullet journal-inspired app helps you stack habits by assigning subtasks and awarding you badges for staying consistent.
  • HabitYou: A simple tracking app that works best if you’re habit stacking by time. You can schedule alerts for habits and organize them by group. You can also set goals and reminders for when you’re feeling unmotivated. 
  • Awesome Habits: This app is great for visualizing your habit-stacking progress. You can add a widget to your home screen that serves as a reminder of your progress throughout the day. It also lets you set goals for each day, week, or month.

You can also check out this guide to the best productivity apps to find the one that’s right for you. 

Combine something you like with something you don’t

You might find it easier to get certain things done if you combine fun tasks, like walking your dog, with unpleasant ones, like taking out the garbage. 

Doing one task in tandem with the other helps take some of the edge off the troublesome chore.

Adapt as necessary

Don’t force habits that aren’t working. There should be a natural transition between the habits you’re stacking — one should essentially lead to the other. 

If they aren’t gelling, it’s okay. You can try integrating the habit into a different time of day or adopting a new one altogether.

Habit stacking examples

Now that you’ve seen a few strategies and tools, it’s time to look at some examples of how habit stacking works in practice. Try these for yourself or use them as inspiration for your own routines.

  • Learn a new language: Take 15 minutes with your afternoon coffee and intentionally complete a few Duolingo lessons. You’ll start to associate your cup of coffee with your new skill before you know it.
  • Build a morning routine: Building a routine of a few morning habits that you complete as soon as you wake up can set you up for a great day. Combine typical morning habits like eating breakfast with something productive, like listening to a podcast or reading the news.
  • Exercise more: Add in an afternoon yoga session after your 3pm meeting.
  • Reply to emails: Make it a habit to respond to a few emails as soon as you start work. Before long, you’ll be knocking them out before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee.
  • Put down your phone: Develop a healthy evening routine that helps you get a better night’s rest. One easy way to start is to put your phone safely out of reach of your bed before going to brush your teeth. And when you’re done with that, quickly get into bed and start reading a book.
  • Read more: Speaking of books… Make it a habit to read a new chapter during your daily lunch break. Soon, you’ll be reaching for your current novel instead of your phone.
  • Take a walk: If you regularly finish lunch before your break is over, why not take a short walk before heading back inside? Alternatively, you could pair your morning coffee with a dawn stroll or your evening tea with a final turn around the block.

Habit stacking can make you more productive, but its efficacy will ultimately depend on your approach. By slowly adding new habits on top of established ones, you’ll be well on your way to integrating long-lasting routines naturally into your day.

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Topics: Productivity

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