habit stacking: to build a better life

If you find it hard to stick to healthy habits and you’re not familiar with the term ‘habit stacking’, coined by author S J Scott in his book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes Or Less, you might find that by the end of this post you’ve finally got the habit for good habits.

In his book, Scott proposes that by clustering the habits we want to develop and sustain, we stand more chance of remembering them by associating related tasks with each other. Hence clustering, or ‘stacking’ new behaviours.

Habit stacking allows you to organise habits in a way which makes logical sense for the way your day works already and go micro-behaviour but a stack or cluster at a time.

The idea is that you start by looking at all the things you want to include and organising them sensibly and logically.

You break down your day into chunks – say morning ritual/commute, lunch time, return home, evening.

Then, you take the behaviours you want to introduce and habituate and stack them.

So a morning ritual and commute (covid permitting) might look like this:

Stack 1 – getting up and ready for work

    • Wake up and drink a glass of water
    • Take a vitamin pill
    • Brush your teeth for 2 minutes
    • Floss for 1 minute

Stack 2 – commuting

    • Eat a healthy breakfast
    • Meditate on the train to work
    • Plan your priority tasks for the day

The smart, sticky habit-stacking bit is to use the brain’s desire to create short-cuts by associating clusters of activity with each other. In other words you have the glass of water next to your bed, then go straight to the bathroom
and take the vitamin pill because you’ve put it next to your toothbrush.  Then use a two-minute buzz toothbrush to brush your teeth and make sure your floss is next to the vitamin jar.  Repeat this routine, exactly like this, for four to six weeks, and that will be sufficient to associate these activities together.

One behaviour will cue the next and the next and the next.

And within two months, you’ll have built the routine sufficiently for the effort required to be much more relaxed, and the behaviours by this point will be habituated

The effort of using your pre-frontal cortex (where information processing happens) that burned a lot of energy at the start of creating the routine, has moved to a different part of the brain, where more automatic, habituated behaviours are stored. The effort is less, the tasks are more natural, and you are on your way to long-lasting behavioural change.

A few tips to make this approach more likely to work for you, in addition to using a logical approach (so fitting it into your day to day) and writing down the task list initially to make sure you don’t forget any part.

Habit stacking tips

  1. Don’t try and do it all at once: focus on different areas of your day one at a time rather than expecting to habit stack every area of your day simultaneously.
  2. Make sure you have a solid ‘anchor’ that you can stack habits around, something that you already do and which you can associate new behaviours with. So in our getting up and getting ready for work example, the anchor would be getting up and out of bed – you know you’re going to do that, so you stack the first new habit (drinking a glass of water) as soon after getting up as possible.
  3. Start small: if you want to introduce meditation into your day, don’t start with 40 minute total silence meditations, begin with a one or two minute breathing exercise, that way you get your brain used to the new behaviour without making things too hard to habituate and stick with.

So there you have it in a nutshell – habit-stacking.  Give it a go, see how it works for you and let me know how you get on.