Habit Stacking

Building a new habit into your daily routine is never easy, but the technique of “habit stacking” can be a tremendous help.

The main idea behind “habit stacking” is to connect your new habit with an old one, especially something you already do every day.

For example, you already brush your teeth every morning (presumably), so that’s an old habit you can use as a starting point to something new. 

Perhaps you want to exercise more often. One realistic goal you can set for yourself is to do morning stretching, push-ups, or jumping jacks every time you finish brushing your teeth.

Initially, it’ll take effort to remind yourself to do the new habit. You can use simple nudges (such as a note on your bathroom mirror or a text alert) reminding yourself to exercise after you brush your teeth.

Gradually, your mind will begin to automatically associate the old habit with the new one.

You won’t even need to think about it anymore, your mind will unconsciously say to itself, “Just finished brushing my teeth, time to do some push-ups!”

This is how our daily routines work in general. 

Everything we do is interlinked with everything else we do. We rarely make conscious decisions, instead we “go through the motions” of what we’ve always done and continue the same old patterns.

When you make any change to your daily routine, it often has to be small and deliberate before it becomes automatic, like everything else.

Habit Stacking: Connecting New Habits to Old Ones

Habit stacking is based off of the concept of habit loops. 

Every habit follows the same basic structure of “cue → routine → reward.”

When we habit stack a new habit onto an old one, we are creating a new cue (or trigger) to initiate the new routine or behavior.

The main “cue” in habit stacking is the immediately preceding action.

Habit stacking translates into the simple formula, “After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”

Any current habit can be turned into a cue for a new one. 

Common examples we can use include:

  • Waking up
  • Drinking coffee
  • Eating breakfast
  • Brushing teeth
  • Starting work
  • Eating lunch
  • Ending work
  • Eating dinner
  • Going to bed

This is a basic list of activities most people already do on a daily basis, which makes them good options to stack a new habit onto. 

Which current habit you choose to “habit stack” will depend on what new habit you want to build – and what makes the most sense in the context of your daily routine.

I’ll create an example for each current habit listed above, just to give you an idea how it works.

Habit Stacking Examples

Keep in mind these all follow the formula [CURRENT HABIT] → [NEW HABIT].

  • “After I wake up, I will make my bed.”
  • “After I drink my first cup of coffee, I will do morning stretching.”
  • “After I eat breakfast, I will check my emails.”
  • “After I brush my teeth, I will recite positive affirmations.”
  • “Before I start work, I will listen to motivating music.”
  • “After I eat lunch, I will go for a walk outside.”
  • “After work ends, I will go to the gym for an hour.”
  • “Before I eat dinner, I will reflect on one thing I’m grateful for.”
  • “After I eat dinner, I will spend time with family.”
  • “Before I go to bed, I will read a chapter in a book.”

Each one of these is a type of habit stack. 

At first, each new habit will take effort before you automatically connect it with your current habit – then it will become a natural pattern you follow.

I’ve applied habit stacking many times in my own life. Before my shower every morning, I do a bit of journaling. After I finish my work day, I pour a glass of wine and read a chapter or two of a book. After I eat dinner, I load the dishwasher and clean the kitchen counters.

These are basic habits, but they are the “building blocks” to a better daily routine. 

Start small. Do what works best for you. The ultimate goal is to make habit change as easy and convenient as possible.

Ask yourself:

  • What’s one area in my life I’d like to improve?
  • What’s one small habit change I can make in that area?
  • What’s a current habit I can easily link with the new habit?

Write down your answers. Hang it on the fridge. Make it a goal this week to start the new habit. 

Are you finally ready to make a change or not?

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