SStarting a new ritual or habit, whether it’s washing your face every night or going for a walk every afternoon, can feel daunting for many of us. And forget about the whole wellness thing routine. Mornings complete with journaling, meditation and yoga before breakfast can be aspirational, reserved only for the most methodical among us…right? Well, if you consider the basic premise of habit stacking, all you need to do is find one thing you do regularly as a default to build a whole tower of routines.
Developed by self-help author SJ Scott in his book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less, The concept of habit stacking is exactly what it sounds like. You identify any regular habit (which could be as small as brushing your teeth or closing your laptop at the end of the work day), and build a new habit on top of that existing habit. Think: “After I brush my teeth, I wash my face.” Like a real building, the stronger or more entrenched a basic habit is, the better you’ll be able to build a new habit on top of it and secure it in place—at which point, you can add another on top of it. One, and so on.
Although there are no direct studies on the effectiveness of habit stacking, the work of behavioral scientist BJ Fogg, PhD, director of the Behavioral Design Laboratory at Stanford University and author. Little habitshas regained support for the concept among academics, such as the work of productivity advocate James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. But to understand that it will be an effective technique, it’s a form of implementation intention, says clinical psychologist Melissa Ming Foynes, PhD. “Simply put, an implementation intention is simply a plan for when and where you will do something, like, ‘When I sit at my desk in the morning, I will drink a sip of water.’
“With post-stacking, the current habit becomes a cue to engage in a new action.” -Melissa Ming Foynes, PhD, clinical psychologist
Implementation intention can help turn goals into automatic actions over time by creating a mental association between what you know or anticipate (eg, sitting at your desk) and what you want to happen (eg, drinking water). With habit stacking, you’re taking advantage of this ability by attaching a new action to any type of existing habit, regardless of whether it happened at a specific time or place, Dr. Foynes says. “In this way, the current habit becomes a cue to engage in a new action.” And eventually, you’ll start doing the second task as habitually as the first.
Why does habit stacking help you adopt new habits?
Everyday habits that you do almost automatically—like making coffee or sending a particular email—can become that way through a particular type of brain chemistry. Different parts of your brain start working together more quickly and efficiently to make those tasks happen, Dr. Foynes says. Tackling a new practice onto this already strong, habit-forming neural network can fast-track your brain’s adoption of it. “Old habits are ingrained in our brains and represent really good entry points or ‘triggers’ for forming new ones,” says behavioral scientist Sekol Krastev, MSc, co-founder and managing director of The Decision Lab.
In this way, habit stacking basically tricks your brain into adopting a new habit using existing neural pathways. Therefore, implementation-intention strategies of this type may have been shown to be more effective than goal-attainment intentions. In the latter case, you’ll “rely on willpower, patience, or motivation alone, all of which can be fleeting and vulnerable to stress, fatigue, and other external factors,” Dr. Foynes says.
There is also something to be said about the rhythm of a new action that flows directly from the habit into which it is stacked. “If you do what you’re doing in the afternoon to start your daily meditation and then have to stop what you’re doing again during the day to do 10 pushups, you’ve incurred two ‘startup costs,'” says Krastev. , referring to the daunting difficulty of starting something new. But if you stack these things together, the start-up cost is shared between them and therefore lower for each, he says. With meditation, you can flow directly into pushups and don’t need to consciously stop to do anything else.
What to consider when stacking a new task on top of a habit
Specific to the habit stack is always better so that your brain can easily identify the old habit and Learn exactly how to act on the new in response.
“For example, instead of saying, ‘After my kids are in bed for the night, I’m going to meditate for five minutes,’ you might do something like, ‘After I kiss my kids goodnight and close the door, I’m going to. Meditate for five minutes in my room,'” Dr. Foynes says. “At first glance, ‘after my kids are in bed’ might seem specific enough, but it still raises questions, like ‘What if they don’t fall asleep right away?’ Or, what if they’re out to get you?’” The idea is to reduce as much ambiguity as possible, and shorten the potential time between when you end an existing habit and engage in a new behavior.
stack too An action is included on top of an existing habit and it is bound to come down, no matter how stable the original habit is. That’s why Dr. Foynes suggests starting with a version of a new task that’s very short (no more than two to five minutes) to best guarantee it will stick, and then build from there.
For example, if your habit-stacking plan is to exercise for 30 minutes each morning after you finish your morning tea, you’ll probably be tempted to skip exercise if you’re running late or didn’t get enough sleep the night before, she says. “If, instead, you say, ‘I’ll do 10 push-ups after I finish my cup of tea,’ that will feel more doable. And as the 10 push-ups become a habit, you can stack another habit on top of that, like 30 jogging for seconds, etc. Basically, baby steps are a surer path to the top of the stack than giant leaps.
For much the same reason, you also don’t want to stack a a bunch New tasks on top of a habit at the same time. This introduces a lot of friction around old habits, Krastev says, which can be as volatile as going for a single big new task. “For example, you might have a habit of doing Duolingo exercises in the morning, so you try to stack meditation after that, and that works well,” he says. “But then, you stack a short workout on top of that, and the total friction weakens the whole habit-stack, so you start skipping your Duolingo too because you’re afraid to follow the workout.” Instead, stick to one small new thing at a time.
Although brevity can naturally make a new task more feasible, it’s worth considering other elements of general availability before you start stacking. Dr. Foynes offers the example of being a night person, but planning to add something to your morning routine to create a habit stack—which probably won’t be effective if you can barely squeeze in the morning stuff. The same goes for attaching a habit to something unstable, such as the bedtime of a child who often struggles to fall asleep. Instead, look for the most incremental and consistent habits possible to ensure that whatever you stack on top is also possible.
Dr. Foynes also suggests developing a contingency plan—because sometimes unexpected things happen that can get in the way of even the most attainable habit stack. “For example, if my goal is to meditate for five minutes after brushing my teeth, but some days, I feel so tired that I can’t concentrate, maybe my contingency plan is to take three deep, mindful breaths first. I go to sleep. ,” she says. Although it’s not an exact habit, it’s close enough that your brain can still draw connections between brushing your teeth and the mental activity to follow, in this case.
If you’ve ever completely switched gears from one task to another or been distracted by something unrelated to what you’re doing, you already know how the brain prefers to focus on one thing at a time. This is why habit stacking should usually stick to one subject area.
“It’s probably easier to stack together habits that are related to each other — like doing pushups with meditation, if they both make you feel calm and empowered when you start your day — as opposed to stacking unrelated things — like making coffee and reading a book,” says Krastev. The more similar the items in your stack, the more likely you are to move seamlessly from one to the next until the whole thing becomes routine.
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