Build your best life with habit stacking

We are creatures of habit. Just think about your daily routines and how you rely on the repetition of actions, that then become habits so you can (to some degree!) run on autopilot.

‘Habit stacking’ the process of attaching a new habit you want to take up, to a habit you already do, can be a really effective way to get a new habit to stick.

Hardwired habits

I bet if you follow the same route to work each day you don’t even have to think about when to turn. Or if you make a coffee each morning, this is quite often on autopilot, without thinking too much about how much milk to add as you as you move around the kitchen. The habit is so entrenched it’s something you do effortlessly.

This is due to the way we are hardwired. Our brains love patterns and repetition. In fact, 80% of our actions take place automatically without us even having to think about them.i When we learn something new, this is controlled by the cerebral cortex in our brain, and it initially takes effort and brainpower to do this new task. Once we’ve repeated this action multiple times, it starts to become routine or a habit and is actioned by a different, deeper part of the brain – the basal ganglia – where it is stored as a fixed process so that we can act without actively thinking about it too much.

Small wins build momentum

Given how easy it is to stick to our established habits and routines, if we add a new routine to an existing one, we are much more likely to keep it going as a habit.

The phrase ‘habit stacking’ was developed by author S.J Scott who suggests you, “build routines around habits that don’t require effort” because “small wins build momentum because they’re easy to remember and complete.”

Also known as ‘habit chaining’, the process involves grouping small activities into a routine which you link to a habit already set in your day. That way you are linking the action of an existing habit that is part of your daily routine, with a new habit you want to establish so they become interlinked in your brain.

An example would be when you get up in the morning (something we all do!), making sure to have a large glass of water if you want to drink more water during the day.

As well as ‘stacking’ on a habit to an existing habit you can also stack your new habits, building on each new habit you add as small, repeatable routines add up to incremental change. So, after having your big glass of water you could add some stretches or crunches to get your body moving.

Making habit stacking stick

Dream big but start small – Start with achievable small habits that will support a big goal. If you want to learn a new language, start by learning a new word every morning while you are cleaning your teeth. Before you know it, you’ll be speaking fluent Swahili!

Be specific – The more specific you are about your new habit the more likely you’ll be successful. If you decide to take a 15-minute walk outside every day, decide exactly when that will happen (and what you’ll do if it’s raining). For example, once I finish my lunch, I will take a 15-minute walk outside before starting my next task.

Take your time – Research shows it takes around two months on average to develop a habit so give each new habit time to ‘stick” before you move on.ii

Be consistent – Try not to take days off. Doing something every day for five minutes is more likely to result in sustainable change than practicing something once a week for 30 minutes.

Short and sweet – Between 5 and 15 minutes is best to establish a new habit, then start to increase the duration once the habit is established.

If you want to make some changes and get some good habits in place, habit stacking could be an easy way to build your best life.