Habit Stacking – And How It Could Be Helpful For You

A new year brings new beginnings and with new beginnings comes change.

Maybe you’ve landed yourself a new job, a swanky gym membership or a new house. Perhaps it’s something a little bit smaller you’re after but nonetheless just as impactful. Often, the biggest challenge that comes with change is ensuring that what you’re trying to do actually sticks – which I get, can be difficult. But what if I told you there was a way to make new habits last while doing minimal work – sounds good right?

Enter habit stacking.

Natalya Price, Psychotherapist from Mind and Body Works reminds us that ​​there is a sizeable gap between what we want to do and what we actually do. “We fall for the Information-Action Fallacy: just because we know something is good for us and we want to incorporate that into our life doesn’t mean we are going to do it,” she explains. “Information and Motivation aren’t enough.” There are three drivers of human behaviour: motivation, ability/capacity to do the behaviour, and prompts (stimuli that trigger you to do it). “Generally, it is difficult to sustain your motivation at a high level, so we need to take actions that are comfortably within our ability and capacity, and we need prompts,” adds Natalya, all of which will be used as a trigger for the new desired behaviour. Habit stacking is one such behavioural technique of creating and sustaining new habits. 

The term itself was coined by Wall Street Journal bestselling author S.J Scott in his book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less, and ever since its release, it’s been studied, encouraged, and implemented by many behavioural experts. Synaptic pruning is one way that researchers know that habit stacking works. For those of us who aren’t neuroscientists, synapses are the things that transmit electrical impulses between neurons in your brain, which all play a vital role in memory, movement, and the senses. Therefore, synaptic pruning is how we gain muscle memory and also why habits are so dang hard to form.

But how exactly does it work? Turns out, all you have to do is identify an existing habit that you already have and ‘stack’ a new behaviour on top of it. Natalya uses the example of making coffee in the morning, with your new desired habit being you want to drink more water, and do a load of washing along with a quick mindfulness practice: “You fill your kettle (old habit/trigger) and you fill your glass of water (new habit), then while your kettle is boiling, (old habit/trigger) you put a load of washing on/or prepare your supplements for the day (new habit), then you put your coffee to brew (old habit/trigger) and start your 5-minute mindfulness practice (new habit).” The more regularly you do it, the more automatic it will become.

Try and think of it as a simple formula: “After/before [current habit], I will [new habit].” Written down it may look a bit more technical than it really is, but once you start getting into the swing of things, it won’t be long until you’ve picked yourself up a brand new habit! In fact, after a while, you may even start to create larger stacks by linking more and more habits together. What’s really effective about habit stacking is that it builds off of the existing neural networks in our brains and rather than strengthening an entirely new neural network, you’re capitalising on a structure and cycle that already exists in your brain.

“The simplicity of the new behaviour is important. If the behaviour frustrates you, it will not become a habit,” explains Natalya. When choosing your action prompts, Natalya asks that you consider physical location, frequency, and theme. “In my coffee-making example, these behaviours are connected by the frequency (every morning), theme (morning routine, self-care) and location (if your washing machine is near the kitchen).” Frequency is important to note here as if you stack a new habit with a habit that happens only once or twice a week, you’re not exactly setting yourself up for success. Our lives are full of cues that trigger actions. And your brain only cares about actions – not intentions.

So what are the benefits of habit stacking? It’s quite a simple answer really, in the fact that it actually works! As Natalya mentions, “The main benefit of habit stacking is the sustainability of the new desired behaviour which ultimately leads to it becoming a habit. This sustainability is achieved through the ease of the behaviour and its connection to a solid well-established prompt. Rather than trying to build a new habit from scratch, you are building on established routines.”

When developing new habits, we should also consider why we need them in the first place. Habits stop us from having to think about every single thing we need to do and with an array of thoughts running through our minds every day, it’s up to our brain to delete, distort, and generalise them to enable us to make sense of our day. Making change can be difficult, and everyone’s approach is different, so if you’re struggling to incorporate a new good habit in your life, Natalya reminds you not to “blame” yourself. “Take your aspirations and break them down into small, manageable chunks, and then find the right action prompts and try for a few days/weeks. Then, reassess to see what works well for you.”

The more we do something, the stronger and more efficient the connection becomes. Research shows that it takes between 21 and 40 days to develop a habit, so what may look like a jumbled and unachievable idea could now be incorporated into your daily routine in a matter of weeks. Chances are, you’re already doing a bunch of stuff every day without even thinking about it, whether it’s making your morning coffee, going to the bathroom when you wake up or showering after you come home from work – these are all habits that are very much there but you don’t even think about doing!

So remember to start small, and don’t expect to see change within a week. Maybe you’ll forget a day here or there – that’s okay, don’t give up! Life gets busy and things get in the way. At the end of the day ​​changing a behaviour is hard and creating new habits is no easy task, no matter how good your intentions are. Consistency is key to habit stacking and the easier the habit, the higher the chances that you’ll adopt it!

Incorporating habit stacking takes time, patience, and determination. In order to do it we need to know what we want to achieve, when, and what routine is likely to work in our favour. Choose a time of day that works with your daily routine and understand the relevance of this new habit so that you can align it with a trigger or cue that will encourage the habit to stick. The fact that you’re even trying is a step in the right direction, and with a bit of a push hopefully, it will all stack up for you.