The new year is often a time of hope and revitalization. Perhaps you’re wanting to use this time of renewed motivation to create healthier habits or finally accomplish that your goal on your bucket list. However, what many of us have experienced, and what studies show, is that creating new habits is HARD and, unfortunately, most of us rarely tend to be successful with these changes in the long term. This is where the concept of habit stacking can be enormously helpful.While some of the lucky few are able to introduce new habits or change existing habits with sheer force of will and discipline, the rest of us need a bit more help in order to create true and lasting change. It’s important to understand that this isn’t because we lack discipline or are lazy. In fact, our brains are wired to keep neural connections strong for the behaviors we already practice and weak for the ones we don’t. Meaning that we stay good at what we’re already good at and the rest well… not so much.
Want to learn more about healthy habits to start your year with? Check out these 16 different habits to kick off 2024 with.
What is habit stacking?
One simple, yet incredibly effective, technique for developing new habits is called habit stacking. Habit stacking involves “stacking” one habit that you want to create with a habit you are already strong at. Stacking your habits requires less of a mental load and utilizes the connections our brain has already created. S.J Scott first wrote about habit stacking in his 2017 book called Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve your Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The concept really took off and other writers, such as Charles Duhigg and James Clear, have since expanded on the concept.
Research shows that many of the actions we engage in daily, think brushing your teeth, making the bed, making a cup of matcha, eating breakfast, etc., are habitual. In fact, one study showed that 43% of everyday actions are habits we engage in while thinking about other things. Meaning we don’t even have to think about what we’re doing in order to be successful! Rather than fighting our basic biology, habit stacking works with our brain chemistry to help us create true change.
Habit stacking works by pairing one behavior you routinely do (brushing your teeth or showering) or something that happens routinely in your schedule (your alarm in the morning or leaving for work) with a new habit you would like to form. This might look like every morning after your alarm goes off, you sit in bed for 5 minutes practicing breathing exercises. Or, after brushing your teeth in the morning, you take your vitamins. Did you know that matcha contains many vitamins and minerals? Read more here.
What are the benefits?
Makes change feel less overwhelming
As we’ve discussed, and probably all felt, making changes in our life can be really hard. Rather than starting from scratch, habit stacking builds off what we already do, which can make habit formation seem more doable and less overwhelming. Habit stacking also encourages starting slow and working one habit at a time. This can also aid in making changes feel less overwhelming.
Reduces mental effort
One of the hardest parts of developing new habits is actually remembering to do them. This can lead to the never-ending cycle of “I’ll try again tomorrow”. Habit stacking can reduce some of this mental load because you’ve essentially got a built-in reminder. This is why it’s key to “stack” with a habit you don’t need to think about. Chances are it doesn’t take any willpower or reminding to brush your teeth or shower. It’s just something you do.
One of the reasons habit stacking is so effective is because it’s working with the neural pathways your brain has already created rather than forging new ones. Research has shown that as we age, we actually lose some of our neurons so it can be harder and harder for us to change our behaviors. One study showed that adults have 41% fewer neurons than an average newborn. Rather than trying to use our limited neuron supply on habit creation, we can pair it with habits and pathways that already exist. Making for an effective and easier way to learn and develop something new.
Interested to learn more about building a healthy routine with habits? Click here.
How to start habit stacking
1. Start slow
We recommend that you start by picking one small habit you want to incorporate into your daily life. This might be a meditation practice, breathing exercises, morning stretches, PT exercises, to-do lists, making the bed, etc. While it’s common to want to jump all in with habit change, the slower you go the better. Research shows that you’re much more likely to stick with something new if you do it for two minutes every day rather than 30 minutes once a week. We’re after long term sustainable change here.
2. Go through your daily routine and list your current habits
Next, get a sense of your daily routines and what actions are already habits for you. Think brushing your teeth, making tea, picking up your kids from school. The more routine, the better. If you can, create two lists, one consisting of actions you do every single day and one consisting of events that happen every single day.
3. Get SMART
SMART goals can be a very effective way to create habit change. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (or realistic) and Timely. As you think through your habit stacking game plan, keep in mind this SMART mindset. Is your goal specific? If you’re planning to go on a walk after getting home from work, think through how far you will go, where you will walk, how soon after you get home, etc. Can you measure it? Think meditating for a certain number of minutes in the morning instead of just saying that you’ll meditate after your alarm goes off in the morning. Is it an achievable goal? If you’re goal is to read 10 pages in the morning after breakfast, but you know this is typically when you have to get your kids ready for school, you may have to create a more achievable goal/timeline. Is this goal relevant to what you want to accomplish in life and where you want to be 6 months from now? And lastly, is this goal timely? What is a realistic deadline you have for accomplishing this goal or setting this habit?
Now that you’ve got your SMART goal in mind and your list of habits and daily events, it’s time to get habit stacking! Think through which events and actions would be the best to pair a habit to. Be realistic and reasonable with which two activities might align best. If it’s helpful for you, write out exactly what your plan is.
5. Test it out
Things may not go perfectly at first and that’s ok. Give yourself a set time to test out your plan. Having a concrete timeline in mind can keep up your motivation and give you something to work towards. If at the end of that timeline things aren’t working, readjust and make any necessary changes. We recommend a timeline of seven to fourteen days to start.
Creating new habits can be tough for most of us, and requires quite a bit of brain energy to boot! Pairing a habit you would like to create with an activity or habit that is already well established can help you remember, reduce mental load and create more consistency as well as increase your chance of success. Start small and remember that no one is perfect at this. Be sure to celebrate your wins along the way!
You may also enjoy:
- Gratitude | Ways to Practice Gratitude for the Past, Present & Future
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- How Matcha Naturally Lowers Anxiety
Disclaimer: These statements in this blog post have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. It's essential to consult with a qualified healthcare professional before making any dietary or lifestyle changes.
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Arlinghaus, K. R., & Johnston, C. A. (2018). The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 13(2), 142–144. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827618818044
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