Habit Stacking: How to Use Psychology to Build Routines That Stick

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I used to think sticking to positive habits was nearly impossible. I’d approach change like it was this giant, overwhelming project. So, I’d throw in the towel before I even really started. I was stuck in a cycle of complaining about parts of my life while doing nothing to improve them. Even though I knew healthy habits were vital to my well-being, I had no clue how to make them actually stick. Plus, I never had time to focus on myself long enough because I was too busy with family and work obligations.

That all changed when I listened to Atomic Habits by James Clear. I would listen to the audiobook while cleaning the house or folding laundry. Around the same time, I stumbled upon research related to ‘habit stacking.’ The simplicity of Clear’s approach really resonated with me and completely transformed how I thought about creating and maintaining good habits. Looking back, I realized I had already been doing a basic form of habit stacking in my own routines without knowing it had an official name. Clear’s book gave me the motivation to take this to the next level by intentionally stacking habits to drive more meaningful change.

It’s pretty obvious that when it comes to changing your life – whether it’s dropping a bad habit or picking up a good one – mindset is huge. If you’re constantly telling yourself, “I could never do that,” or “That’s too hard,” you put up mental roadblocks without even realizing it. You talk yourself out of success before you even start.

But here’s the cool thing – you can reprogram your mindset and train yourself to think positively. At first, it might feel fake, but over time, your beliefs catch up to your actions. When you push through challenges that once seemed impossible, you start to realize how strong and capable you are.

It’s essential to pay attention to your self-talk and inner dialogue, too. Your subconscious is always listening and will reinforce whatever messages you feed it. So, be mindful of how you speak about yourself and others.

The right mindset combined with the right strategies is powerful. It can help you achieve changes you once thought were out of reach.

And that leads me back to the topic I want to focus on here – habit stacking. Let’s dive into how this unique approach can transform your daily routines…

What Is Habit Stacking?

We all have deeply ingrained daily routines that we do automatically without much thought. For example, your brain effortlessly remembers to brew coffee each morning, grab your keys before leaving the house, or lock your doors at night. These habitual grooves are already well-worn in your brain.

The key is leveraging these existing habit pathways to stack new behaviors. Habit stacking utilizes the natural momentum of daily routines to drive new habits.

Instead of building a new habit from scratch, you insert it into your current routine. For instance, while brewing your morning coffee (old habit), you could stretch for 2 minutes (new habit). Linking the new habit to an existing one makes it effortless over time.

The psychology behind habit stacking is pretty fascinating, yet simple. It’s all about how our brains love routines and operate based on connections.

After a few weeks of habit stacking brewing coffee with stretching, your brain starts to associate making coffee with waking up your body and increasing flexibility through stretching. The coffee cue triggers the stretching response. Eventually, you automatically incorporate stretching into your morning routine without needing any extra motivation or effort – it just flows naturally as part of your daily habitual sequence.

Research shows this strategy is effective because it taps into our brain’s natural momentum. One behavior leads seamlessly into the next, simplifying the adoption of new habits. We don’t have to reboot our brains and form entirely new neural pathways. We just piggyback onto existing ones (Source, NCBI, NLM, NIH).

Habit stacking aims to create simple, repeatable chains of behavior. This can be super helpful for building productivity, making positive lifestyle changes, or managing ADHD. Gradually incorporating new habits into set routines makes success way more sustainable.

So, to summarize, the psychology is simple – we’re more likely to stick to new behaviors when they are built upon existing habits. By linking habits together, we eliminate the need for motivation or remembering the new habit. It happens naturally because habit stacking works with our brain, not against it! It takes advantage of our inherent love of patterns to make positive changes stick.

What Are Atomic Habits?

Atomic habits are small changes that compound over time to return remarkable results. Just like atoms forming the building blocks of our reality, atomic habits are the building blocks of our behaviors and lives.

James Clear outlines the formula for habit stacking in his book Atomic Habits:

 “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”

Let’s explore some real-life examples…

  • After brewing my morning coffee, I’ll spend five minutes stretching to wake up my body and increase flexibility.
  • After getting home from work, I’ll check the mailbox to avoid missing anything important.
  • After dinner, I’ll take a 10-minute walk with my family to unwind and digest.
  • After getting into bed at night, I’ll reflect on one thing that made me laugh today to ensure a moment of stress relief before dozing off.
  • After putting on my workout gear, I’ll share my location with a friend or family member to ensure I stay safe.

This strategy works well because you’re attaching new behaviors to deeply ingrained current habits. Your brain is accustomed to following Habit A (current), linking it to Habit B (new) automatically, so slipping into Habit C (outcome) feels natural. For example, “After brewing my morning coffee” serves as the trigger or cue (Habit A), leading to the performance of “spending five minutes stretching” (Habit B), which ultimately achieves the desired outcome of “waking up my body and increasing flexibility” (Habit C).

Once you grasp the basics, you can start chaining small habits together for momentum. For example, after your morning routine, you could go for a walk, then drink some water, then shower. The flow from one mini-habit to the next keeps you on track.

What Are the Four Laws of Behavior Change Discussed in the book Atomic Habits?

The book Atomic Habits emphasizes making habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. Clear outlines the four laws of behavior change that serve as the framework for building and sustaining atomic habits.

Consider the goal of incorporating a daily workout routine into your life. You know that regular exercise benefits your mental and physical health, but the prospect of a lengthy and intense workout can be daunting, especially if you have a busy schedule. To make the habit of exercising easy to adopt, apply the four laws as follows:

Make It Obvious: The first step to creating lasting change is to make your desired habits obvious. To make a habit of exercising obvious, set a recurring alarm on your phone or place your workout clothes and shoes in a prominent location where you’ll see them every day. This visual reminder serves as a signal to initiate your exercise routine, making it easier to remember and follow through. It’s extra obvious if your workout clothes are cute!

Make It Attractive: Make your habits attractive by linking them to something you enjoy or find rewarding. This could be as simple as pairing your workout with your favorite podcast, upbeat playlist, or audiobook. Alternatively, treat yourself to a relaxing scalp massage and hair mask, a few minutes of meditation, or a cup of herbal tea after completing your exercise session. By associating exercise with activities that bring you joy and relaxation, you’ll be more motivated to stick to your routine and maybe even look forward to it.

Make It Easy: One of the keys to building atomic habits is to make them as easy as possible to adopt. This might mean breaking your habits into smaller, more manageable steps or removing friction from the process. Start with a micro-habit, such as doing five minutes of stretching or a quick set of bodyweight exercises at home. This small initial commitment reduces the perceived effort and makes the habit more achievable, especially on busy days. Additionally, remove friction by setting up your exercise space or creating your playlist in advance. Minimizing barriers and making the habit easy to start increases the likelihood of consistency, which leads to success.

Make It Satisfying: Finally, make your habits satisfying by celebrating small wins along the way. Whether it’s completing your five-minute stretching routine or increasing the duration of your workouts over time, acknowledge your progress and achievements. Reward yourself with positive affirmations for a sense of accomplishment for prioritizing your health and well-being. You’ll feel more motivated and encouraged to continue your exercise routine by reinforcing positive behavior and celebrating your efforts.

Incorporating these four principles—making it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying—into your daily routines sets the stage for long-term success in building and maintaining healthy habits. Applying these strategies will transform your tasks from daunting to a rewarding and sustainable part of your lifestyle.

Remember, it’s not about making drastic changes overnight but rather about making consistent, incremental progress over time.

How to Start Habit Stacking?

Start harnessing the power of atomic habits in your own life by identifying the small changes you can make to move closer to your goals. Whether it’s committing to a one-minute face massage each morning, reading just one page of a book each day, or practicing gratitude for one minute before bed, every tiny action counts.

Follow these simple steps to start habit stacking and reap the benefits:

  1. Identify your existing habits: Take a moment to jot down the habits you already do consistently throughout your day. These could be anything from brushing your teeth in the morning, watering your plants after work, or walking the dog.
  2. Choose your new habits: Next, decide on the new habits you’d like to incorporate into your routine. Be specific and start small to avoid overwhelming yourself – 10 minutes of stretching, two pages of reading, or 1 minute of meditation.
  3. Pair new habits with existing ones: Look for natural points in your day where you can seamlessly integrate your new habits with your existing ones. For example, if you want to start meditating, you could do it right after brushing your teeth in the morning or take a few deep, relaxing breaths while watering your plants.
  4. Create a visual cue: Use reminders at first. Put up sticky notes or set phone alerts to remind you to do your new habit after your old one. This builds the association.
  5. Stay consistent: Stick to the routine daily, even on busy days, to turn it into a set habit stack. Consistency is key!

The key is to start small rather than overhaul everything at once. Choose one new habit to blend into your day seamlessly. Over time, the pairing will become automatic, and you can repeat the process with more new habits!

The Compound Effect

When looking at individual habits, it’s easy to downplay them as insignificant on their own. But when you harness the psychology of habit stacking over time, those small changes compound into something powerful.

So next time you catch yourself dismissing a small habit as inconsequential, remember this: Tiny changes, when compounded through habit stacking, can transform your health, productivity, and life. The power is in the repeat. Why not use this psychology to your advantage?

What current habit could you use as the foundation for a habit stack?

Free digital worksheet with the Soulful Self-Care Newsletter:

Habit Stacker Tracker.

If you want to check out Atomic Habits by James Clear, you can find it on Amazon. It’s an excellent book! If you choose to use this link, please know that I will earn a small commission from purchases. This doesn’t add any extra costs to you, and I’m sincerely grateful if you choose to use it. But if you don’t, I would encourage you to read his book, as I found it incredibly helpful.