Habit Stacking Is the Easiest Way to Make New Habits Last—Here's How It Works

Make small changes with big impact.

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Trying to change existing habits or introduce new ones—and make them stick—is notoriously difficult. Of course, some people seem to adopt behaviors easily or with impressive discipline, but for the rest of us mere mortals, finding an effective technique for building, breaking, and keeping habits can feel like a hopeless endeavor. But it's not our fault. Habit-building is hard. The neuronal connections in our brains are strongest for those behaviors we already practice, and weak (or non-existent) for those we don't (yet!). We're wired for what we're used to, already good at, or familiar with. But this doesn't mean we're doomed to fail—not by any stretch.

Out of all the helpful tips and tricks out there, there's one brilliantly simple and effective technique you may not have heard of yet: habit stacking. It involves "stacking" the new behavior you're trying to adopt onto a current behavior in order to help you remember to do it and/or perform it with less mental effort. It utilizes the strong synaptic connections we already have.

For example, your goal might be to drink more water throughout the day, so you decide you're going to start drinking a glass of water every morning. Don't just assume you'll start doing it—it probably won't last long. (You could set an alarm or reminder, but why add another task.) Instead, pair that new habit with a small (tiny, even!) everyday habit or routine you already do, one that's concrete, specific, and consistent. Decide: "After brushing my teeth in the morning, I'm going to drink a glass of water." You stack them together and create a small, but growing chain. Every morning, those two actions should be associated with each other: brush teeth, drink water. The more regularly you do it, the more automatic it will become.

S.J Scott used this term in his book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less, and it's been studied, encouraged, and implemented by many behavioral experts over the years. Behavior scientist BJ Fogg, PhD, founder and director of Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, best-selling author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, and creator of the Tiny Habits Method, has written extensively about linking behaviors to make lasting change, referring to the current habit or trigger situation as an "anchor" or "anchor moment" that helps cue and hold the new one in place. Habits and behavior expert James Clear, best-selling author of Atomic Habits and creator of the Habit Journal, is another huge proponent and teacher of this method.

Habit stacking relies on the brain power you already have.

"Habit stacking is a really effective strategy for building new habits because it builds off of the existing neural networks in our brains," explains Melissa Ming Foynes, PhD, licensed psychologist, holistic wellness coach, international educator and consultant, and mindfulness, meditation, and yoga teacher. "When you identify a daily action or habit you already engage in, add [a new habit or make a change] before or after the existing habit. Rather than strengthening an entirely new neural network, you're capitalizing on a structure and cycle that already exists in your brain."

Habit stacking provides a built-in reminder.

Foynes also notes that this strategy works beyond the neurophysiological level. "The existing habit serves as a [helpful] 'cue' to engage in the new habit you're trying to develop," she says. "For example, if you decide that after you turn on your tea kettle each morning you'll breathe deeply for one minute, every time you turn on your tea kettle there's a built-in reminder integrated into your daily life that helps you maintain consistency. Over time, you'll begin to associate your tea kettle with this one minute of deep breathing."

Habit stacking makes habit changes less overwhelming.

"In the midst of a busy lifestyle, habit stacking can also be helpful because the new habits often feel less like an 'add-on' when tied to something you already do anyway," Foynes says. "This approach can feel more integrated, and therefore, less overwhelming."

How to Start Habit Stacking Your Way to a Better You

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Start small—the smaller the better.

"Research shows that consistency of practice is more effective than the duration of practice in helping us make changes in our lives," Foynes says. "Doing something every day for five minutes is more likely to result in sustainable change than practicing something once a week for 30 minutes." With that in mind, it's easier to be consistent when the goal or task is attainable. The existing habit can be as seemingly insignificant as, "When I get out of bed, I will…" In fact, this is a great one—you have to get out of bed every day (in theory). The new habit, too, should be small: "While my coffee brews, I will delete five emails." The more realistic, the more likely you are to do it, feel successful, do it again, and so on, until you're a pro—and maybe even ready to stack on another habit or make the challenge slightly harder.

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Consider all your options.

When first getting started, to get a sense of all your cue options, Clear recommends making two lists: one of things you do every single day (drink coffee, eat dinner, listen to a news podcast), and another of events that occur or things that happen to you every day (the sun rises, the phone rings, you get hungry). Now you can choose the best building block on which to stack another one.

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Be extremely specific.

If either your new goal or current cue (or both) are too vague, you'll struggle. "If you tell yourself you're going to take a 10-minute walk outside every day during your lunch break, it would be helpful to decide exactly when you'll go outside—right after you end the session with your client? Five minutes after you finish lunch?" Foynes says. And don't forget to make contingency plans, she adds, like what you'll do if the weather's bad or you're feeling pressure to work through lunch.

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Choose a realistic cue.

To set yourself up for success, select your current habit wisely, taking into account the realities of your life, Foynes says. For instance, you want to read 10 pages every night after you brush your teeth. Sounds great. But if you "tend to fall asleep immediately reading at night, or your children have inconsistent bedtimes that affect your bedtime routine, choosing nightly teeth brushing as the cue may not be optimal." You'll want to go back to your list of existing habit options to think of a better anchor.

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Give yourself a timeline.

It's not totally necessary, but it's helpful to set yourself a concrete window of time. It could be arbitrary (one week, one month, until your birthday) or an actual deadline for an event (the race you're training for, when a work project is due). "When goals are too open-ended you can feel less motivated to work on them," Foynes says. "Establishing [a timeline] helps reinforce the commitment you're making to work on this new habit. Plus, setting a time limit can feel less daunting because it's more of a short-term commitment with an end in sight." It also creates an excellent moment for you to pause and reflect on your progress. Did you successfully meditate for three minutes after taking your morning vitamins for the entire month? Celebrate that! Or did you drop off after a few days? Ask yourself why, modify the goal, or consider choosing a different old habit to link to.

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