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Habit Stacking – The Low-Stress Way To Create Healthy Habits

If your past pursuits of adopting healthy habits have all failed 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 drive 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).

Creating Healthy Habits is HARD.

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 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, 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. Do you know what did help? Habit stacking.

A woman with glasses and a green t-shirt holds her hand to her chin in a questioning post. The title reads What is habit stacking?
Habit Stacking

The Wonderfully Simplistic Art of Habit Stacking

Long-term, 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 are catalysts for instant transformations. For most 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 to make them stick.

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

By attaching this new habit to 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 the one you naturally do every day. Plus, you’ve done it so 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.

Who invented habit stacking?

The concept of habit stacking was first introduced by popular by S.J. Scott in his 2014 book “Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness“.

Since then, it has become a go-to method for making lasting changes in various areas, from health to productivity. Today, many successful people use habit stacking to maintain healthy habits and achieve their goals more easily.

And now you and I will be one of them!

Why does habit stacking work?

One of the best books on habit stacking comes from James Clear’s Atomic Habits, which helped me dive deeper into the ins and outs of habit stacking. He gives an excellent 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 to one with a strong connection in our brain, we increase the chances of sticking with it.

By leveraging the natural process of synaptic pruning, we can make small changes that lead to lasting transformations.

If you want to learn more from James Clear, check out this video:

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!

An Example of Habit Stacking:

I incorporated a simple habit loop into my life: “Before I eat lunch, I will go for a 20-minute walk.”

I attached a habit I want to start (walking) with something I already do (eating lunch). This is referred to as attaching your habit to an anchor. Because I have time set aside in my workday for lunch, It’s not overly burdensome to use part of it to go walking.

My walk feels good because it helps me clear my head and stretch my legs, reinforcing my desire to do it. Plus, I do it at a time that requires minimal effort and motivation.

It might not seem like much, but the cumulative effect is noticeable. I’m getting exercise, which leads to lower levels of stress. My blood sugar feels more stable. After I started a daily walking habit, I noticed I snack less. After a few months, I was down eight pounds.

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 to your stack.

You do this by chaining small habits together that naturally fit. Let’s say I wanted to add weight lifting to my midday exercise routine. I can add on to my current stack.

Go for a 20-minute walk -> Do 5 minutes of weights -> Eat lunch.

As I build out my exercise habit, I can start adjusting the rest of my day to fit. Maybe I wake up ten minutes earlier each day to add ten additional minutes to my workout stack. It’s an easy accommodation with a big payoff for me over time.

The Importance of Starting Slow in Habit Stacking

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 have 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 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. You’ll increase the chances of skipping 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 work on my personal projects without anyone interrupting me. Because I’m working on getting better quality sleep, I haven’t gotten to 5:30 AM yet.

I currently wake up around 6:50. Setting my alarm for 5:30 will be disruptive. Chances are, I’ll hit the snooze button and fight myself over whether to get up, hating every moment.

That’s doing too much, too quickly!

I can start by going to bed 10 minutes earlier and waking up ten minutes earlier.

Remember, it’s not just the early wake-up call. I also want to be productive in the morning.

To start this habit stack, I’ll wake up ten minutes earlier and do work for 5-7 minutes before starting the get-ready routine for my daughter.

Once that becomes seamless, I’ll add additional time and keep going like this until I reach my goal of 5:30 with an hour of solid morning work time.

How To Start Building Your First Habit Stack

You can start tomorrow if you’d like. Choose on 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 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 when 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 to 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).

Your stack might look like this:

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 daily.

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 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!

A man runs up some stairs. The title reads What is habit stacking?
What is habit stacking? PIN

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2 Comments

  1. Here for the habit stacking , great article and soberish appealed to me just because I am .. thanks ☺️

  2. This is the first article i’ve read in 2 years. That’s realistic and honest. And i recognize myself in all of it. Want to start healthy, by all the healthy food as a pro. Throw all the bad away. But after a week i feel lost already.
    This is the first that can actually helo your state of mind/habit and keep on going. It’s perfect! Thank you!

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