What kind of person do you want to be, and what would it take to get you there? Who we are in the world, essentially, is the sum total of our thoughts and subsequent behaviors. Everything we do begins with a thought, and all those thoughts and actions put together become our daily habits… the kind of people we are… how we move through the world.
If you’ve ever found yourself wishing you had different, better habits, but think it’s too difficult to make a change, habit stacking may be for you.
What Is Habit Stacking?
The premise of habit stacking is that you already have a set of daily habits, you’re already trained a certain way, so you can build on that by stacking new habits on top of those existing ones.
You can stack new habits into all kinds of places in your life. Want to drink more water? Stack a glass of water onto other habits like brushing your teeth in the morning and making dinner at night. Need to move more? Stack 10 jumping jacks onto your morning break from work, and another 10 before you get in the car to pick the kids up from school.
The trick is to make it no big deal. Make it as easy as possible to do the thing, so you do it repeatedly, and soon enough it’s a habit. From there you can tweak it further… add more time, more reps, more water, whatever.
If you are a person who has spent more than 10 minutes in a corporate setting, you have probably been made aware of SMART goals. These are:
But they’re not just corporate speak for employee reviews and a weekly one-on-one with the boss. Setting SMART goals is just a smart way to set goals. Why? Because it’s not vague. It doesn’t allow for much interpretation.
For example, at some point many people decide they’re going to go to the gym more, so that’s their goal: “I’m going to go to the gym more.” But this leaves so much to the imagination, and it affords an opportunity to wriggle out of it from a lot of angles. You’re too tired, work needs you, or there’s a birthday party today so you “have to go”.
But look at what happens when we turn “I’m going to go to the gym more”, into a SMART goal:
“I’m going to get in better physical shape (specific). I will go to the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (measurable) and spend my lunch hour working out with Carl who already goes at these times (achievable). I will spend half the time on cardio and the other half on strength training (relevant). I will do this for all of June and see how I feel afterward (time-bound).”
See how this is a lot harder to get out of? But more than that, on some key levels, SMART goals actually make it easier on you. There is no longer any guesswork about what you’re supposed to be doing on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at noon. You’re on the elliptical with Carl.
How Do You Do Habit Stacking?
Since you’re looking to build on what you’ve already got going, start with a comprehensive list of all the things you currently do over the course of your day. Spend some time on this list, try to think of everything. You wake up, make the bed, make coffee, go for a run, brush your teeth, wake the kids up, take them to school, go to work, have lunch… you get the idea.
These are the nooks and crannies into which you can stash new behaviors. Just take the new habit you want to build, look for the place in your list where it’s most logical to stack it, and give it whirl.
The habit stacking formula is: Before/After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]. For example: After I eat my breakfast each morning, I will take a multivitamin. Before I get the kids ready for school I will do 10 sit ups.
Notice how the formula itself incorporates much of the SMARTs that are needed to cement your new habit. It’s specific, achievable, and relevant.
Habit Stacking For Weight Loss, Mental Health, A Better Relationship, Anything At All
Once you get the hang of it, you can stack new habits everywhere. You can shuffle them in, like a deck of cards, to really help you build success into every day. For example, you’re on the hook for going to the gym with Carl now, so on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights, before you get into bed, you pack a gym bag so it’s ready to go when you walk out the door in the morning. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, when you pack lunch for the kids, you pack lunch for yourself too. Now you can’t weasel out of the gym and go to Jimmy John’s instead.
With habit stacking you can build in ways not only to make yourself accountable, but to make yourself successful too. Then, all you have to do is keep doing it until the habit cements itself.
Change Is Change
Though habit stacking is a fun little hack that can certainly help you get out of your own way, it’s not foolproof. Nor is it 100% “set it and forget it”. Any time you add, remove, or change a behavior, there will be a noticeable effect.
Habits are habits because they feel familiar, intuitive. There is a hormonal reason why; you are rewarded with a feel-good hit when you’re doing your thing. Things that are not habits feel foreign and new. Your reward center hasn’t caught on yet, it’s not high-fiving you for those sit ups yet.
Of course, the degree to which you feel “something” when stacking the new habit onto the old, has everything to do with how impactful the new habit is. For example, taking a multivitamin after breakfast might be easy peasy for you, but packing a gym bag before you get dressed in the morning might cause some resistance.
It’s good to be mindful that even though you’re giving yourself a running start with habit stacking (smarty pants), it doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly a gym rat. In fact, in the example above, you’re just packing the bag. Walking into the gym is another habit to be stacked elsewhere. Baby steps. You’ll get there.
Why does habit stacking work?
On many levels, we’re predictable. Just as you can bet on a noticeable “something” when you stack a new habit onto an old one, thanks to your body’s pleasure centers, habit stacking gives you a leg up on creating new behaviors because of synaptic pruning: the use it or lose it aspect of the brain.
What is synaptic pruning? It basically means that your brain is constantly pruning itself like a bonsai. Synapses are like tiny pathways in the brain, allowing neurons to communicate, which translates to action. They get stronger the more we use them and they die off if we don’t use them. This is why walking is like second nature but you don’t remember anything from high school Spanish.
When we’re babies, we have a brain full of neurons but no real synapses. In fact, in 2007, researchers discovered that newborns actually have 41 percent more neurons than adults. We’re full of possibilities, potential, but there’s no structure yet.
As we grow and form habits, the synapses we use the most grow stronger as the neurons mainly talk to each other in those channels. The ones we don’t use as much are pruned so that, just like with a real tree, the nourishment can go to the branches that need it. As they receive more nourishment, those branches get stronger, just like our habits. Energy flows where attention goes.
Habit stacking works exactly like a graft onto a tree. By introducing the young sapling that you want to grow, into a place that’s already thriving, you increase your chances of success by quite a lot.
One of the most important things to know about being human is that we are programmable. This can work to our advantage or detriment, but it is a fact, so we might as well use our powers for good.
You can become the kind of person who takes vitamins, goes to the gym, makes lunch for their family, or drinks more water. All it takes is some understanding of how you work and a little planning around it. You can use your programmability to your advantage and become the person you want to be, little by little, starting right now, with habit stacking. Give it a try!
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