Habits can make our days smoother and improve our wellbeing. But even the ones we want the most for ourselves (stretching before bed) and our families (clearing the table after dinner) can feel challenging to make stick. Experts say a technique called habit stacking can help us all create new routines.
What is habit stacking?
Habit stacking is the concept that in order to adopt a new habit— say, starting to meditate for five minutes each morning—you could “stack” it onto a habit you already do, like drinking your AM coffee.
By anchoring our new goal of meditating into our existing morning coffee routine, we’re much more likely to achieve success because there’s a form of accountability: the habit we already have, says Jill Emanuele, PhD, the vice president of clinical training at the Child Mind Institute and a senior psychologist in the mood disorders center there.
“We actually have the advantage of our brains helping us in this situation,” she says. “The more we build a habit or a routine, the more that we build neural pathways to support that [habit]. And the more we do it, the stronger that pathway becomes, so the task becomes much easier over time.”
In other words, linking new behaviors to established routines is just smart science.
The idea has been gaining steam as a way for adults to incorporate new habits into their days, and there’s reason to think stacking habits together is a smart approach to teaching new skills and responsibilities to our kids, too. We spoke to experts to find out ways this might work for your family.
Starting small to see big changes over time
“With habit stacking, the concept is that you make [the change] super small,” explains BJ Fogg, PhD, a behavioral scientist who founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and the author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. (Fogg’s research and writings are the pioneering ideas behind the concept of habit stacking, though he doesn’t actually use the term in his own research.)
This “start small” approach is true for anyone hoping to use the method, but it’s especially important for kids. When you’re looking for new habits to stack into your child’s day, pick something very manageable.
Dr. Fogg uses a three-pronged approach:
Try the new routine
Celebrate the accomplishment
Choose an existing behavior to be the anchor for the new habit
Here’s an example of how this might work with your kiddo: say your goal is to have your child clean up their toys. That’s a tall order! So instead of saying, “after you brush your teeth you’re going to clean up your room,” work with them to choose an anchor moment together (say, before they sit down for a snack) and then ask them to just put away one thing.
“If they just tidy up one thing and they do that on a regular basis, that’s great,” explains Dr. Fogg.
Dr. Emanuele agrees. “You want to try and keep the behaviors as simple as possible. The idea is to chain things together, but the first thing that has to happen is that one behavior gets changed.”
Once they’ve completed the new behavior— in the above example, putting away the toy— you really want to celebrate it. “The way a habit or behavior becomes more likely and more automatic is when we have a positive emotion when we do that behavior,” explains Dr. Fogg. “So the positive emotion is what signals our brain ‘pay attention and do this more often! And do it on this cue or at this anchor!’”
In other words: as parents, we can’t make a behavior automatic in our kids, but we can help give them the positive emotion that will encourage the behavior to become automatic in the future.
How to use habit stacking for your whole family
There are a couple of factors specific to your child and family you may want to consider when employing habit stacking. First, when you’re looking for a behavior to anchor a new habit to, consider both your goal and your child’s goals, explains Stephanie Weldy, a behavior design specialist, mother and chief of staff at BJ Fogg, LLC.
To go back to the cleaning up example: “I try to align the outcome that I want—a tidy playroom—to something that he wants, which is for the toys to be where they belong when he goes to play with them,” she says.
Helping your kids consider a reason to do the new habit can encourage our children. And as for parents who are making changes? It’s been proven that routines and rituals make families happier.
With young kids especially, these can be difficult concepts to grasp. To reinforce the ideas, Dr. Fogg created “Habit Songs for Kids,” a series of songs for kids ages 3-11 that explain the Tiny Habits methods in catchy, easy-to-understand song form. (And every parent knows the power of a good song!)
You can also stack habits across family members—this method can work as a chain reaction.
Say cleaning up from dinner each night is a disaster and there’s always a fight over whose turn it is to clear the dishes. “Maybe when mom takes her last bite, Dad picks up the plates and takes them to the sink, and Joey clears the silverware,” says Dr. Emanuele.
If you can create chain habits that are “definable, measurable, and can be completed,” you can start to make some of those family pain points a little less, well, painful. Soon, you’ll be stacking victories alongside habits.
BJ Fogg, PhD, is the founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and the author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.
Stephanie Weldy, MEd, is a behavior design specialist and chief of staff at BJ Fogg, LLC, who teaches industry innovators how to use behavior design.