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