BEE HEARD: Habit Stacking

Photo Credit: Native Connections

As we proceed into the new year are you finding it difficult to change existing habits or introduce new ones? Finding an effective technique for building, breaking, and keeping habits can be challenging because 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 are wired for what we’re used to, already good at, or familiar with. But just because something is hard does not mean that you cannot change. 

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 to help you remember to do it and/or perform it with less mental effort. It utilizes the strong synaptic connections we already have. 

You probably have very strong habits and connections that you take for granted each day. For example, your brain is probably very efficient at remembering to take a shower each morning or to brew your morning cup of coffee or to open the blinds when the sun rises … or thousands of other daily habits. When you are trying to accomplish goals, you can take advantage of these strong connections that you already do on a daily basis and use them to build new habits. 

How? You can use the connectedness of behavior to your advantage. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking. 

Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit. 

Do you want to start a journal? Meditate? Cook dinner at home every night? Take 10 minutes for yourself? Tackle a looming work project? The possibilities are endless! Try out the habit stacking formula: 

After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]. 

For example: 

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss. 
  • After I floss, I will meditate for 10 minutes. 
  • After I meditate, I will stretch for 15 minutes. 
  • After I stretch, I will review my to-do list for the day. 

Again, the reason habit stacking works so well is that your current habits are already built into your brain. You have patterns and behaviors that have been strengthened over years. By linking your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, you make it more likely that you’ll stick to the new behavior. 

Once you have mastered this basic structure, you can begin to create larger stacks by chaining small habits together. This allows you to take advantage of the natural momentum that comes from one behavior leading into the next. 

How to start habit stacking your way to a better you 

1: 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. 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. 

2: Consider all your options. 

When first getting started, to get a sense of all your cue options, James 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. 

3: 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? And don’t forget to make contingency plans, like what you’ll do if the weather’s bad or you’re feeling pressure to work through lunch. 

4: Choose a realistic cue. 

To set yourself up for success, select your current habit wisely, taking into account the realities of your life. 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. 

5: 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. Like SMART [Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Relevant; Time-Bound] goals, 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.  

Here’s to your good health! 

It’s okay not to feel okay.  

If you or someone you know has been struggling with their emotions, behaviors, or substance use please reach out to us. We can help you find appropriate tools and services that could help you overcome obstacles in your life. We are here for you. Please contact the Southern Ute Behavioral Health Division at 970-563-5700 for more information or to set up an appointment to see a counselor or therapist.  

Reminder: If you need to talk to someone, please reach out. 

  And for those interested in opioid use education, harm reduction, and support, please contact us for quick Naloxone (Narcan) training and fentanyl test strips. We can schedule individual, family, or friends training times at our Southern Ute Behavioral Health Building, or we can come to you, and the training is around 30 minutes. Please call us at 970-563-5700 to set up a training appointment. 

*Article reprinted with permission from the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line 

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