Mastering the Art of Habit Stacking


November 22, 2023

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Habit Stacking Demystified

Routines are powerful tools to enhance our daily lives, designed to simplify and streamline our days. Within these routines, habits act as the essential building blocks, operating quietly in the background, and freeing up our mental capacity for more creative tasks. Habits are the reason we can effortlessly complete tasks like brushing our teeth. The beauty of it all is that we can leverage these inherent neurological tendencies to our advantage, leading to positive changes in our lives with minimal effort.

What is habit stacking and why should I care?

  • The Power of Tiny Changes: Habit stacking is like playing with LEGOS. You take small, existing habits (your building blocks), and you stack new habits on top of them. This strategy leverages the brain’s love of patterns. You see, our brains are wired to save energy, and when you stack a new habit onto an established one, it creates less resistance making the new habit easier to remember. And, over time, the new habit starts to feel effortless!
  • Domino Effect of Progress: Habit stacking is a master plan for consistency. When you attach a new habit to an existing one, you set off a chain reaction. As you complete your first habit, it naturally propels you into the next one. It’s like a game of dominos where your daily rituals create a cascade of positive outcomes.
  • Custom-Fit to Your Life: Habit stacking is a personalized approach. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. You decide which habits you want to build and where they fit into your daily routine. Whether it’s flossing after brushing your teeth, reading a page of a book right before bed, or taking your vitamins while packing lunches, it’s all about creating a sequence that suits your lifestyle.

“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow.”

-James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

The Neuroscience of Habit Stacking

Let’s get nerdy, shall we?

Habit stacking is all about understanding how your brain works and leveraging that knowledge to build the life you want. Here’s the scoop on what’s happening inside that magnificent brain of yours:

  • Neuroplasticity: Neuroplasticity is the science behind a growth mindset. It’s the reason we can develop skills and knowledge through effort, practice, and persistence. Whenever you repeat an action, your brain strengthens the neural pathways associated with that action, whereas neural pathways used infrequently become weak and eventually die. It’s the science behind learning to drive or quitting smoking. Over time, this makes the new habit feel as natural as the old ones, and your brain performs it almost on autopilot.
  • Dopamine: Your brain is a sucker for dopamine. When you perform a habit, your brain rewards you with this feel-good neurotransmitter. Habit stacking allows you to sneak in productive habits alongside the sweet dopamine-releasing ones. 
  • Cue > Response > Reward: This habit loop is your brain’s way of automating daily tasks. There’s a cue (trigger), a response (the habit itself), and a reward (your brain’s pat on the back). Habit stacking doesn’t affect this loop, it only adds to it. 
  • Neuroscience of Habits: Our brains are habit-making machines, and when you perform a habit repeatedly, your brain learns to automate it to save cognitive resources. This means less decision fatigue and more mental space for creativity and problem-solving. Sign me up!

Habit Stacking in Action

Here are 2 basic, but real-life, examples of habit stacking.

  • Morning Routines
    • Cue: The first thing you do when you wake up.
    • Response: A series of tiny habits.
    • Reward: The satisfaction of having a productive morning.
  • Every morning, right after your alarm rings, you brush your teeth (an existing habit), and then you immediately do some stretching exercises (new habit) to wake up your body. After that, it’s time for a 10-minute meditation session (another new habit). By the time you’re sipping on that morning chai tea (existing habit), you’ve already accomplished so much!
  • Evening Routine
    • Cue: Lying down in bed.
    • Response: A series of relaxation techniques.
    • Reward: A peaceful and rejuvenating night’s sleep.
  • Each night, after getting into bed, you read 5 pages of your book (existing habit), and then you add on some deep breathing exercises (new habit) and focus on the positive things from your day (new habit) before setting your alarm (existing habit). This will set you up for a peaceful slumber!

My Existing (and winning!) Habit Stack

This habit stack I started in January has helped me manage (some) of the mess in my house!

Foundation Habit: Making Penny’s breakfast

New Habit: Emptying the dishwasher

Penny and I have a solid morning routine. It’s so important for us to begin the day in a state of calm before she goes off to school or play. Our routine also brings a sense of comfort to my toddler because she knows what to expect each morning. As an aside, I used to loathe emptying the dishwasher. It was even a task I lovingly delegated to my hubby for a brief stint before realizing the beauty of habit stacking. In January, I started emptying the dishwasher after I made Penny’s breakfast. It takes 5 minutes and makes it easier to keep the kitchen and dining table clean after each meal because the dishwasher is empty and ready for the dirty dishes.

Cue: Placing Penny’s breakfast on the table.

Response: Empty the dishwasher while waiting for Penny to eat breakfast.

Reward: A clean kitchen to start each day.

Keep it simple, and don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or two. Let’s be honest, a weekend morning can be chaos at my house, and emptying the dishwasher might happen until after lunch. The point is to have more done days than not.

My New Habit Stack

Here’s an example of how I am working through a new habit stack for my well-being. 

Foundation Habit: Walking on the treadmill

New Habit: Somatic exercises

It’s been quite some time since I have felt good in my body. I’ve been dealing with a lot of hip and back pain since my pregnancy and the tension in my body reached an all-time high a few weeks back whereas I couldn’t even sit on the couch without severe discomfort. I was still healing from a double carpal tunnel operation so my normal go-to (yoga) was out of the question. So I turned to somatic exercises. My new habit stack is to complete one day in my 30-day hip relief course after I walk on the treadmill.

Cue: Stepping on the treadmill.

Response: Immediately complete a somatic exercise workshop class when I’m done walking. 

Reward: The ability to wake up and walk around with less pain.

I am 21 days into this new habit stack and am happy to report that I have been waking up with less and less hip pain. It’s a huge milestone for me and an effortless way to incorporate a few more minutes of feel-good movement into my day.  

Building Your Perfect Habit Stack

Now that we know what habit stacking is and how our brains handle it, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of building your very own habit-stacking blueprint.

Creating a habit stack is like building a sandwich – you want to layer it perfectly to get the most satisfying bite. [And now I want a sandwich] Here’s how to craft the ultimate habit stack that sticks:

  • Start Small: Don’t overwhelm yourself with a towering habit stack from the get-go. Begin with one new habit, then gradually add more as your brain gets used to it.
  • Identify Your Foundation Habits: Piggyback on habits you already have, like brushing your teeth. Ask yourself: What do I do every single day without fail? This minimizes the effort required to remember your new habits.
  • Consistency Is Key: Like any skill, habit stacking takes practice. Commit to your new routine until it becomes second nature.
  • Stay Flexible: Life is all about constant change. If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. And your brain might resist change in the beginning. But remain curious, adjust if you need to, and just keep going.

So there you have it – habit stacking is your secret weapon to effortless change, and you’re armed with the neuroscience behind it. It’s like having a backstage pass to your brain’s inner workings. Now, all that’s left to do is put this knowledge into action and start creating the life you’ve always dreamed of. The key is to start small, harness your existing habits, and stick with it. You’ve got this!

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