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.
The idea behind Habit Stacking is simple. In order to develop a new habit, all you do is:
Take an existing habit (or automatic activity) and then
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
Header Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash