How to Change Your Life With Habit Stacking

woman drinking from mug in zero waste kitchen
How to Change Your Life With Habit StackingDougal Waters - Getty Images

"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through these links."

You hate your commute every morning. Hate it. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, inhaling fumes – and it takes a whole hour! How can you make it less of a slog? Well, you could use that time, and a language app to learn some French before your upcoming European vacation, which you've been meaning to do but just haven't found the time for. Isn't your commute sounding better already?

Welcome to the wonderful world of habit stacking! This simple and super-effective idea uses a combination of two tasks – one you have to do, and one you choose to do – to help you accomplish more, and feel a lot happier.

Research done in 2020 found that both interest and repetition are essential building blocks in learning good habits. What’s more, the American Heart Association recommends habit stacking as a great way to layer more healthy physical activity into your life with minimal effort.

Read on to learn how to start making your own life run a lot smoother – and how to make great habits stick for good.

What is habit stacking?

The term “habit stacking” was coined by author S.J. Scott in his book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less. Basically, it means you create a new habit by attaching it to something you already do regularly. For example, while brushing your teeth, you can walk briskly in place – a multitasking moment that’s good for you in two ways. “Habit stacking as a concept is an understanding of the way our brains function,” says Deena Manion, Psy.D. LCSW, a psychologist in private practice in Agoura Hills, CA. “If you connect a new habit to something you’re already doing every day, it can be a very important act of self-care.”

How does habit stacking work?

Habit-stacking starts with a “trigger” that you’ll come to associate with a new, good-for-you action. “What we know from lots of prior research is that habits are kicked into gear by a particular cue,” says Kristin Diehl, PhD, professor of marketing at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles. “A cue could be a specific location, a certain time of day, or a series of actions. For habit stacking, the cue is a prior action, like brushing your teeth, that can serve as the cue for the next habit.”

There are three specific strategies you can use to habit stack:

[accordion id='da65a9b1-c6d4-4e5f-9315-5181cd1ac70a'][/accordion]

Why habit stacking is effective

It’s pretty basic: While research shows that resolutions tend to take dedication and hard work, habit stacking quickly becomes rote, so you just do it. “We tend to think about ourselves as these rational human beings with strong willpower that we can resolve ourselves to do something differently and then just execute it,” Diehl explains. “However, that’s not quite how humans function. We give ourselves too much credit for our actions. In fact, a lot of our actions are driven by habits and routines. If you want to change your behavior, you have a much better chance of achieving that by thinking about how to make it a habit than by making it a resolution.”

The fastest, easiest way to make this happen is to stack a new habit with something that you absolutely can’t get out of doing on a regular basis, like staying clean. “On average, about 40% of our behaviors are habitual – that percentage is higher in some areas of our lives than others,” says Diehl. “About 80% of our actions regarding personal hygiene, like showering, are habitual, while only about 40% of our actions regarding exercise are habitual.”

This is why following up your nightly shower with doing some new yoga stretches (or any other exercise you haven’t been able to squeeze into your day!) can pay off in more flexibility and better health.

How long does it take?

“That really varies,” Diehl says. “One study found that it took on average 66 days to establish a relatively simple behavior — for example, drinking a bottle of water — to become a habit. But the variation was huge, between 18 and 254 days!”

However, habit stacking can be a real shortcut when it comes to cementing positive new behavior. “Complex behaviors take longer to establish as a habit. For example, large scale data suggests that it takes 4 to 7 months to establish a gym-going habit, but only a couple of weeks to establish a handwashing habit. The more frequent and in more rapid succession a behavior is performed, the faster it can become a habit.” Keeping your new habit simple, and linking it to something you do multiple times a day, is the quickest way to making it a permanent part of your life.

In the workplace

Focus on creating habits that make your job more pleasant. Rather than habit stacking two duties you really dislike together to get them over with, it’s more effective to connect an annoying or difficult part of your work with a new habit you see as a treat.

slim and fit woman drinking water before having breakfast
yacobchuk - Getty Images

“Start with an essential task, then add on a new habit that’s fun,” suggests Manion, or something you're looking forward to accomplishing. Let’s say you want to get in the habit of connecting regularly to new people in the office. If every day you have to, say, do an expense report, follow that up with a stroll to someone’s desk for a quick chat. “You can also link a new habit you want to start, like meditating, to your lunch break,” says Manion. “Try meditating after you eat, right before you go back into your office. You’ll feel rejuvenated, and you’re more likely to keep meditating.”

How to make a new habit last

If you’re successfully started a new habit, one way to keep it going is to make sure there’s a trigger you can’t miss. “It helps when we have visual cues in our environment,” says Diehl. For example, when you keep your running shoes by the door, it will help keep a habit of running in your mind and going strong. "In a study on how people sorted organic waste, having a small compost bin in the kitchen was the biggest predictor of engaging in sustainable sorting behavior, likely because the kitchen bin serves as a cue,” says Diehl.

Another important way to make sure you succeed in habit stacking: Don’t overstack yourself. “Start slow,” suggests Manion. “Focus on one or two new habits for a few months–don’t overwhelm yourself. Then, stack more habits as you go.” How do you know your new routine is really working? You do it without thinking about it–and you feel much calmer. “Habit stacking can be very stress-relieving,” says Manon.

The bottom line: Prioritize what you really want to accomplish–and start stacking. It’s a fresh solution that will bring on feelings of happiness, in so many ways.

You Might Also Like