How to use habit stacking to create healthy habits.
If your past pursuits of adopting healthy habits have all ended in failure after a few days or weeks, you’re 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 is currently changing my life (and my waistline).
Willpower has its limits.
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.
When my one of my favorite internet gurus, Mark Manson, said that if self-discipline feels difficult, I’m doing it wrong, it inspired a total mindset shift.
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.
The whole “suck it up, buttercup” approach doesn’t do anything positive for me. Luckily, I found a whole world of habit hacks and development that IS working.
The Wonderfully Simplistic 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.
What is habit stacking?
Habit stacking is basically what it sounds like. It’s 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. 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 meditation 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 does 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]
Here are some examples of habit stacks I currently have in my life:
- I wake up, I will immediately make my bed and brush my teeth.
- After I brush my teeth, I will meditate for 15 minutes.
- Then, I will get my daughter ready.
- After I get my daughter ready, I will eat granola and yogurt or a healthy breakfast burrito
- On Tuesdays, after I get my daughter ready for her playdate, I will go to the gym.
- After I go to the gym, I will have my protein shake.
- Once I have my protein shake, I will take a shower.
- After my shower, I will do two hours of writing.
At this point in my habit stacking, the meditation in the morning is second nature. In the same way I do not feel right if I’ve moved on with my day before showering or brushing my teeth, I feel out of sorts if I haven’t meditated.
My other loops are newer so they aren’t as established, but you get the idea.
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. Maybe you already noticed this pattern in my stacks above. Here’s how my morning stack is currently set up:
Wake up > Make the bed > Brush teeth > Meditate > Get daughter ready for playdate > Eat yoghurt and granola or breakfast burrito > Take a shower > Begin writing
On days I exercise, my stack is a little different:
Wake up > Make the bed > Brush teeth > Meditate > Put on gym clothes > Eat a banana > Get daughter ready for play date > Go to gym > Drink protein smoothie > Take a shower
They all naturally build on one another and don’t feel burdensome. I’ve done a lot of work on the front end to make eating a healthier breakfast easy like prepping and freezing my breakfast burritos ahead of time. On days when I go to the gym, I have my clothes laid out and have created a habit where I put them on automatically so I don’t give my brain time to think about it.
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 the habit stack that I do before the kiddo is needing attention pretty short. It isn’t possible for me to go to the gym before she’s up (my husband works crazy hours and sleeps like a log), so I adjust my habit stack accordingly. 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.
- Related Post: The Science Behind Replacing Bad Habits with Good Ones
Start Building Your First Habit Stack
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!