How Habit Stacking Trains Your Brain to Make Good Habits Last
Get acquainted with habit stacking, a new way to form habits that's easy and effective enough to have everyone singing its praises
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Forming new habits—even those you’re excited about—can be just as tricky as breaking bad habits. Adding more things to our daily to-do list can feel overwhelming, but with a little time-management ingenuity, making good habits stick can help us learn how to be happy, how to set goals and even how to be productive. Clueless about how to start with that? A behavioral trick called habit stacking can give you a major assist.
The concept of habit stacking is akin to constructing a solid house: Build a new habit on top of a strong, existing part of your daily routine. That way, it’s piggybacking on an old habit that’s already a no-brainer, so you’re far more likely to adopt the new habit going forward. “Habits are automated behaviors you don’t have to think about,” says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. “For example, there are several steps involved in tying your shoelaces, but you don’t consciously think about these during the process. Once your fingers grab the laces, it’s an automated process.”
Why not make all your to-dos as effortless as tying your shoes? There’s really no downside to habit stacking. It turns chores into habits you don’t have to think about all that much. So if you’re looking for ways to feel happier at home or tips for developing good work habits, here’s how you can make that happen.
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What is habit stacking?
The term habit stacking was first used by author S.J. Scott in his book Habit Stacking, and it’s taken off like a rocket. “Habit stacking involves adding small routines to habits that are already established,” says Wallin. “With intentional practice, the established habit becomes a trigger for the new habit you want to adopt.”
That new behavior will eventually become a trigger for the next habit, allowing you to build on the progress you’ve already made.
Other prominent behavioral scientists are also big fans of the technique. BJ Fogg, PhD, founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, has also written extensively about pairing behaviors to make lasting change, most notably in his bestselling book, Tiny Habits. And James Clear, bestselling author of Atomic Habits and creator of the Habit Journal, is another proponent of this method.
How does habit stacking work?
At its core, habit stacking is simply pairing a small, new habit (say, meditating for a few minutes) with one that’s already established (boiling water for your morning cup of tea). The more we practice doing it, the more automatic it becomes. It may take a little bit of adjusting to get used to it at first, but be intentional about how you go about stacking habits.
“Adding a new behavior to an established habit is not automatic at first but gradually becomes automatic as it is repeatedly paired with the longer-established habit, such that the earlier habit becomes a cue for the newer habit,” says Wallin.
Eventually, you may not feel like you even need habit trackers anymore—you’ll be getting things done without even thinking about them. Here’s more about how habit stacking works to help you quickly adopt new behaviors.
It uses existing neural networks to make new habits stick
Everything we do and think draws on neural networks, which are how our brains organize information to communicate our thoughts and behaviors. Habits have many deep and redundant neural paths, so we can perform a habit even while our attention is elsewhere.
“Your brain builds new neurons to support the behaviors we practice daily,” says Bonnie Carpenter, EdD, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia. “The more you practice a habit, the stronger the connections can become. If you don’t practice a habit, the connections will not be as strong.”
So when you tap into the power of the habits you already have, the newer habits already have a framework to follow.
It turns an existing habit into a cue for the new one
We all have many behaviors that we’ve practiced for years, just like tying our shoelaces. “If you attach a new behavior to the old ones, it’s much more likely that you will make the new behavior part of your routine,” says Carpenter. “You are teaching yourself and planning the path to behaviors in the future.”
Eventually, you’ll take for granted those habits you couldn’t make stick.
It’ll help you procrastinate less
You know you need to adopt a good-for-you habit, but you just don’t know how or where to start. And let’s be honest: You really can’t find the motivation for it. (Join the club.)
That’s exactly when habit stacking works well. When you tie the dreaded thing you keep putting off to a strong, automatic habit, it’s suddenly possible to get ‘er done. “After a while, it becomes natural,” says Carpenter. Wasting time putting off what you don’t want to do will quickly be a thing of your past.
What is an example of habit stacking?
Different people have different habits they want to adopt, but these examples can get the wheels turning in your head about the ways habit stacking can help you streamline your life and become more productive. For each, we’ve included your established habit, then the new habit you can stack on top of it.
- When you turn off your work computer for the day or when you take a break from work, tidy up your desk for five minutes.
- After you grab something to wear out of your overstuffed closet, put another clothing item into a bag to be donated to charity.
- When you finish dinner, immediately put your plates and silverware in the dishwasher so the kitchen sink is always empty.
- Once you’re done brushing your teeth, hydrate with a full glass of water.
- While your morning coffee is brewing, sweep the floor, open the mail or wash the dishes in your sink.
- When your car pulls out of work at the end of the day, phone your mother (you know she wishes you’d call more often!).
What are habit-stacking strategies?
How exactly you want to tackle this is entirely up to you, and that’s one of the best parts of the habit-stacking concept: It can and should be customized. Our experts suggest these ideas to get you started.
1. Find the right habits to pair
It probably makes the most sense to connect the old habit with the new one that’s in a similar vein, but that isn’t entirely necessary. For example, if you want to fit in more exercise, start a new habit of walking for five minutes every time you put on a pair of sneakers.
But according to Linda Sapadin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Valley Stream, New York, what matters most is that the new habit is specific, not that the habits are cousins. Maybe putting on your sneakers isn’t tied to exercise; instead, it might make more sense for you to take out the trash whenever you lace up your tennis shoes.
If the pairing makes sense to you, that’s all that matters. In other words, you do you.
Timing matters too: “It’s also very helpful to decide when you are most likely to have a positive experience with habit stacking,” Sapadin says.
If your aim is to practice gratitude by filling out a gratitude journal daily, it doesn’t make sense to tie this new habit to your morning shower. You won’t be writing under the spray of water, after all. Instead, you might stack the gratitude journaling habit on top of putting on your pajamas.
“Look at the habits you have daily, and look for the place where you might easily insert the new behavior,” says Carpenter.
2. Don’t use an emotionally laden habit as a cue
Certain ingrained routines are not the right triggers for new habits. If you wake up in the morning, hop on the scale and feel bad about yourself, for example, your a.m. weigh-in is absolutely not the right cue for another habit. “If you pair a new habit with one that is emotionally triggering, you will unwittingly train the new habit to trigger similar emotions,” says Wallin.
3. Stack the habits for good
Most of us have already engaged in habit stacking for our bad habits, such as procrastinating on work. Let’s say you sit down at your desk to work, but you are reluctant to get started (usually due to some degree of anxiety). “To distract yourself from anxiety, you form a habit of scrolling through your social media feed for a few minutes,” says Wallin. Now you’re not working, and you’re not doing anything else terribly productive either.
This pattern can continue to suck your time, which is the opposite effect of what habit stacking should be. “Next, suppose that, while scrolling through your social media, you see an ad for an item that you’ve been shopping for recently,” says Wallin. “What luck! You click to purchase it immediately. For the next few days, when you sit down to work, you check your social media and then look for other bargain offers. Now you are stacking another habit onto the sequence.”
As you can guess, this type of habit stacking is easy, says Wallin. “But the sequence is counter-productive because it interferes with getting work done,” she says.
If, for instance, you want to mirror the morning habits of highly successful people, stack a productive task on top of another one. In time, you will become the naturally productive person you’ve always wanted to be.
- Pauline Wallin, PhD, clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
- Bonnie Carpenter, EdD, clinical psychologist in Philadelphia
- Linda Sapadin, PhD, clinical psychologist in Valley Stream, New York