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Cover image for Building Habits: The One Technique That Worked For Me

Building Habits: The One Technique That Worked For Me

murrayvarey profile image MurrayVarey ・5 min read

Good habits are hard to build. Until recently, I had never successfully managed it. Replacing my fries with a salad? Not happening, no matter how much I tried.

However, last year I discovered a habit-building technique that sounded like it might be effective. Upon reading about this -- in James Clear’s awesome book Atomic Habits -- I jumped on it straight away. Before long, I had developed habits that — shock — actually stuck around.

What is this powerful technique? It’s called Habit Stacking.

Habit Stacking

The idea behind Habit Stacking is simple. In order to develop a new habit, all you do is:

  1. Take an existing habit (or automatic activity) and then

  2. Perform that new habit afterwards

In other words, your existing habit becomes a trigger for the new habit.

For example, here are some habit stacks that I’ve built into my own life:

  • Bedroom > Charger Stack

Aim: To stop reading my phone in bed

Method: When I (a) walk into my bedroom, I (b) put my phone on charge in the other corner of the room.

  • Bowl > Bottle Stack

Aim: To drink more water throughout the day

Method: When I (a) wash my cereal bowl at work, I (b) fill a bottle with water.

  • Run > Healthy Lunch Stack

Aim: To eat healthier food

Method: After I (a) finish my lunchtime run, I (b) buy a relatively healthy lunch (rather than the turkey sandwich that I would buy otherwise)

It’s easy to see why this technique is effective — each of us has any number of habits built into our daily activities. My trigger habits are so simple that you might not even call them habits at all. Still, I am guaranteed to do them on most days, which makes the habit stacking easy to do.

(And for those of you thinking “That’s not a Stack” … I hear you! It’s more of a Habit Linked List. Not as catchy though.)

Reverse Engineering a Habit Stack

I admit, habit stacking sounds a little obvious. In fact, you likely do some form of it already. Maybe, once you (a) step into the shower, you (b) oil your viking beard while singing a Disney medley. We all have these little stacks built into our routines.

So what’s the big deal? For a start, often the so-called obvious is worth highlighting. After all, I hadn’t figured out habit stacking for myself, obvious as it may be.

More importantly, by giving habit stacking a name, the concept starts to solidify. It becomes a conscious thing. And that’s where the power lies: you begin to look for opportunities to create a stack. In other words, you can reverse engineer the habit you want to build. Now we’re talking my language!

When you think about it, there are so many triggers to stack a habit onto:

  • Waking up
  • Turning your light on
  • Drinking your soothing morning tea
  • Shouting abuse at your neighbour’s cat (not enough tea!)

The opportunities to build a habit stack are there. You just have to look for them.

Stacks Upon Stacks

Here’s another great thing about habit stacking — once you have a stack, you can keep adding habits to it. Habit stacking has a kind of recursive quality. Because of this, you can link together a number of tiny habits. When performed in sequence, these can add up to something huge.

Here’s a small habit that I recently added to my Bowl > Bottle stack. Once I’ve filled my bottle with water, I then go to my desk and — first thing — drink a glass of water. The stack has now become Bowl > Bottle > Drink. It’s a tiny addition, but it gets me started.

But this comes with a warning: Don’t overstack. Once you have too many things going on, the stack can feel like a checklist. The ‘habit’ element has gone and it’ll no longer be automatic. Chances are you’ll not do it.

Keep the stacks small, and they will flow.

Solid Foundation

To be a success, each habit stack needs to be built on a solid foundation. In other words, that initial trigger habit has to be automatic. If not, the whole thing falls down.

I learned this the hard way with my first attempt at creating a water drinking stack. The idea was to base my new water drinking habit on the Pomodoro technique. This is the timekeeping method I’ve been using which, in short, means working in 25 minute blocks. My plan was, after every other pomodoro — approximately once an hour — to get up and fill a glass of water.

This sounded great, but there was a tiny problem: most days I forgot to use the Pomodoro technique. Remember how I said I was bad at habit building? Well, the Pomodoro technique is one such example. The rest of the stack was always going to fail. I was never going to drink that water.

Washing my cereal bowl? Now that’s automatic, otherwise that bowl is staring me in the face all day, caking that cereal into cement. As a result, that water bottle is getting filled.

Keep The Habits Linked

Here's another reason that my Pomodoro > Water stack failed: The Pomodoro did not link — in any way — to the Water. So, even when I did remember to turn on that Pomodoro timer, I still forgot to fill that glass.

There should be a link between the two habits, such that the second habit practically jumps out of the first. These links can come in a variety of forms. For example:

  • Visual link — “Hey, there’s my phone charger, let’s plug my phone in” (Bed > Charger stack)

  • Themed link — “I’m feeling healthy after that run, better keep that up” (Run > Healthy Lunch)

This is where multiple stacking can come in handy. If there is no link between habits (a) and (b), then you can build a linking habit. This could have saved my Pomodoro > Water stack, if I had developed the habit of walking around after every pomodoro. Then, occasionally, that walk could have ended up at the water cooler, making the water bottle is easy to fill. I would have a Pomodoro > Walk > Water stack.

The Dark Side of Habit Stacking

As with any force for good, habit stacking has a dark side. Again, most of us already do this without realising. How often do you check your phone and instantly open up Twitter (or even Dev.to)? If so, you have a Phone > Twitter stack.

Ah ha — but there’s good news! Once you’re aware of it, you can change the stack. Perhaps you could flick to a photo of loved ones instead. Or someone you don’t like — then you’ll stop doing it!


There we have it. Habit Stacking, the one habit-building technique that’s worked for me.

If you’re looking to build a habit, give this a try. Just make sure the foundations are stable, and that the habits are linked. You’ll be a habit-building machine before you know it.

Do you have a favourite habit-building technique? I’d love to hear about it. (And will it stop me from eating fries?)

Further Reading

Habit Stacking by James Clear
13 Steps for Building a Habit Stacking Routine (this article goes into great detail)

Header Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

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MurrayVarey

@murrayvarey

Passionate about learning and communication

Discussion

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My newest habit this year has been to move my phone from the charger to near my front door when I wake up in the morning.

It's been great, I've definitely used it less since it's out of reach and I have to consciously go and get it if I need something.

 

Exactly! The humble charger is a useful ally for breaking that phone habit.

 

I like that, I will try soon. :)

 

One of the persistent "glitches" leftover from my traumatic brain injury (2008) is the near total inability to form new habits, good or bad. It's been amazingly frustrating, as you can imagine.

Making it more frustrating, visual reminders seldom work for me. They "wallpaper", as I explain it: my perception filters out something I see more than once or twice, like wallpaper. I've had urgent reminders on my desk or bulletin board, right in front of my face, sit there for well over a year.

However, what you describe may in fact be a way around that no-new-habits glitch. I've been wondering why the only way to form habits since the head injury has been to associate a different location with a different task: I think I may have been habit-stacking based on entering a new space! I can't change spaces very often in my current living situation, but habit stacking may be a good way of replicating that.

I'll try and remember to tell you how it goes. :)

 

That's an interesting point. It makes sense that the different ways to link habits (visual, theme, new space, etc.) are more effective for different people.

Good luck, Jason! Keep me posted.

 

One of my new habits stack is to read and write on Dev.to every day and every week. But i most times forget to carry out this task.

 

I can completely relate! I suppose the question is, what's your trigger habit?