What Is Habit Stacking

By Azzy Aslam

Habits, Routines, & Behaviours

24 Jul, 2021

What Is Habit Stacking?

Making changes, creating new habits, or building new routines is tough. Our brain loves to automate behaviours, so it can spend as little energy as possible, because that’s what automation allows. So how do you create new habits which you want? Habit stacking may just be what you need!

Habit stacking uses the brain’s desire to be efficient. With habit stacking we use an existing habit and add-on a new habit to it. You effectively ‘chain’ the habit you want to an existing and automated habit.  You can also take it a step further and chain several habits one after the other, but this takes a little more work.

Habit stacking is sometimes called habit pairing. However, ‘pairing’ suggests only connecting two habits. Habit stacking is about connecting more than just two, should you want to.

How does habit stacking work?

When you want to create a new habit there is effort involved, and it also requires you to remind yourself to carry out the new behaviour. We can schedule the activity in our diary to remind us to spend time on the new habit. This doesn’t always work. We can start with good intentions but quickly fail to carry out what we said we would do.

With habit stacking we can take one of our existing habits or daily activity and follow it immediately with a new habit/activity/behaviour.

There are several things we do each day without thinking. Some are required to keep us functioning each day! The one which has been used often is our visits to the bathroom! This is something you don’t have to schedule or remember, just let nature take its course.

Professor BJ Fogg uses bathroom breaks in his talks on how it can be used to stack other habits. He gave a personal example of wanting to do some light exercise each day but wasn’t always able to do so for one reason or another.

He decided to habit stack. He did a few press-ups after each bathroom visit. At first it was just 5 press-ups. This added up to about 25 – 30 press-ups in a day as he visited the bathroom 5-6 times in a day.

If you are not used to doing press ups, trying to do 25-30 in one will probably be a challenge. But spread out over the day, and only doing 5 at a time is achievable.

The habit quickly stuck. He was able to increase the number of press ups over time to 10 after each visit. Now he was hitting 50-60 press ups each day. I understand he was eventually able to get to 100 press ups each day.

Starting small was also helpful. In this case if all you can manage is one press up then start with that, nothing more. Over time your strength will improve, and you will then be able to do increase the number of press ups after a short period of time.

Increasing the number of press up from one to two, or from two to three, is perfectly acceptable. Small steps and small increases improve the chances of turning it to a habit. Whereas if you went from one press up to five, it may well be too much and feeling disheartened may put you off continuing.

Start by looking through your day to find the activities you regularly do. Make a list of them. You may have a habit of putting the coffee maker on each morning. You can add a new habit just after you have set up the coffee maker. In the few minutes before the coffee is ready you could do 10 press ups, or meditate for one minute, or journal your morning thoughts and ideas.

Or perhaps you can stack a habit after the coffee is ready, you could sit down and read 5 pages of a book whilst you enjoy your first coffee of the day.

Get creative and see which existing habits and routines you can use to attach a new habit.

 

Which habits are good for habit stacking?

As you can see from the examples above, habits or activities which are small or can be broken down into smaller ‘chunks’ work best when stacking habits.

The example above can be viewed as someone who wants to become physically active. If you are struggling to allocate a specific time to exercise then doing a few press ups (or star jumps, squats or even stretching and touching toes) is a great way to spend a few minutes and add exercise to your day.

It also works if you have done little to no exercise for several years. Rather than overwhelming yourself, start with something you are comfortable with and spend just a few minutes on it several times a day. Or even just once a day. It’s certainly more than you are doing now.

Some examples – this is not an exhaustive list and I’m sure you can come up with your own examples relevant to you.

 

  •  Reading
    • Read for one minute or one page
      • After a meal
  • Exercise
    • A few light exercises
      • After each bathroom visit or
      • When you put the kettle on
    • A daily run – 10 minutes to start
      • When you get home after work, immediately change into joggers, trainers, t-shirt and go for a run
  • Meditate
    • Calming the mind
      • After waking up meditate for 1 minute
      • Meditate for 1 minute after each meal
      • Meditate for 1 minute just before going to sleep
  • Writing
    • Write for 5 minutes or 100 words
      • Journal when you get out of bed
      • Journal before going to bed
      • Write a 100 words for your blog before you eat breakfast/lunch
      • Write for 5 minutes before turning on the TV
  • Relationships
    • Improve and value relationships
      • Say thank you to your partner at least once each day
      • At work, look for something done well and give praise to the person
      • Each day, call one person you haven’t spoken to recently.

I hope you get the idea!

 

How do you stack more than two habits?

You can easily stack a second, third or more habits to an existing habit. The process is the same as adding the first new habit.

However, I strongly recommend you allow the first habit you are stacking to be fully embedded into your routine. If you attempt to stack a second habit too soon then the ‘work’ and effort you now must put in for the two new habits may start to feel overwhelming.

It’s much better to get used to the effort it will take to perform first habit, and for it to be automated alongside your existing habits. Once this happens you can start to add the next habit.

For instance, in the press up example, once you are comfortable with doing 5 press ups each time you visit the bathroom you can increase the number of press ups. Or you can add 5 start jumps instead. So now you will have 5 press ups followed by 5 star jumps.

Another approach would be to perform new but different habits with different existing habits. You can perform the press ups with each bathroom visit and perform a one-minute meditation before each meal you eat.

Habit stacking is extremely versatile, it just requires a little creative thought to make it work.

 

Summary

General rule for habit stacking is to stack the first habit to an existing habit, routine, or behaviour and repeat until it sticks and becomes part of the existing habit. Only then should you consider stacking another habit to the same stack.

 

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