Anyone who has ever started a new year with every intention of adopting a new, life-changing habit knows this to be true: Habit formation isn’t easy. It takes a lot of effort and discipline to take a behavior from something that requires effort (and often dread) to something that becomes automatic and joyful. That’s why a habit tracker is such a great tool, and one we swear by here at Silk + Sonder.
That being said, habit trackers aren’t the only tool that can make the process of sticking to a habit a little easier and more effective. Enter habit stacking, a technique that takes a lot of the effort out of habit formation.
But what is habit stacking, exactly, and how does it work? Here’s everything you need to know.
What it means to “habit stack”
The term “habit stacking” was made popular by author S.J. Scott, who wrote the 2014 book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take 5 Minutes or Less. Essentially, habit stacking is a practice that creates cues for specific behaviors. By grouping smaller tasks together — ideally grouping a habit you want to form with a strong habit you already have — you’ll stop thinking of them as separate to-dos. This helps the habit you're working to form become automatic.
How habit stacking eliminates decision fatigue
The term decision fatigue is defined as “difficulty in making a good decision experienced as a result of the number of decisions one needs to make.” All sounding like Greek to you? Basically, when we have too many daily decisions in front of us we become paralyzed and end up accomplishing a lot less.
For example, if you know you want to exercise every day but don’t know when in the day you’ll exercise, your brain might not be able to make a decision surrounding the “when” — particularly if your day is very busy — and it can just give up. By grouping exercise together with a habit that already exists, you’ll eliminate decision fatigue because you’ll know exactly when you’re going to fit movement into your day. For instance: “After I brush my teeth, I immediately go to the gym.”
If you don’t want to (or don’t have time to) exercise every day, simply plan for this ahead of time. Maybe on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays you exercise after you brush your teeth. While the jury’s out on exactly how long it takes to build a habit (some say 21 days, others say much longer), you’ll still build a habit around exercise if you do it this way — it may just take a little longer.
Stacking a habit like exercise with something you already do can help automate it.
Examples of habits you can stack
We’re finally getting to the good part: What are some good examples of habits you can stack? The best thing to do is pair a habit you want to form with a habit that already exists. You have a lot of little habits you may not even think about. Some of these probably include:
- Brushing your teeth
- Getting dressed
- Picking up your phone first thing in the morning (not a habit many of us are proud of, but still one we have!)
- Making the bed in the morning
- Doing the dishes after dinner
- Taking a shower
- Changing out of clothes and into pajamas
- Checking our email
- Eating breakfast (and lunch, and dinner)
- Setting an alarm for the next day
- Taking medication or vitamins
When you look at a list like this, it will help you realize just how many little habits are already built into your day. And yes, basics like “getting dressed” do count, because it’s something you automatically do — and we’re going to guess you have a lot more daily habits than the ones included on this list.
So, what’s an example of how you can stack habits? Here are some suggestions — but as always, feel free to tailor this list to your own goals and the habits you’re working toward.
- After I brush my teeth, I meditate for 10 minutes
- Before I take a shower, I go to the gym
- After I make my bed in the morning, I write in my journal
- After I set my alarm at night, I make sure to give my partner a kiss
- After I do the dishes, I take half an hour for self-care
- Before I take my medication or vitamins, I blend up a healthy smoothie
- Before I get dressed, I stretch
- Before I check my phone in the morning, I spend 10 minutes reading my book
A habit tracker can complement habit stacking well, because it can help hold you accountable until these habits naturally start to sync with habits that already exist. Happy stacking!Next, read up on how to set good intentions for the day.