In a world where we are overwhelmed with information, outside influences, and decisions to make, it’s important to support our brain with its work as much as we can. Habit stacking is a great way to do so because it helps us take the pressure off the brain to learn something new while having to remember what and when to do it.
But let’s take a step back and begin at the start.
What is habit stacking?
When you come to my blog, you probably know what habits are. They are behaviours we tend to repeat on ‘auto-pilot’, meaning they are building our default state of behaving. Habits can occur subtly, meaning we create them without consciously doing so.
Habits can be an acquired mode of behavior out of necessity that has become almost involuntarily like getting up very early due to work (and later we just keep waking up early). They can also be a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition such as brushing your teeth.
In times of survival, those are the ones we will fall back on. So it is really important to build healthy and solid (meaning strongly ingrained) habits. It is just as important though to release ourselves from the unhealthy habits we all pick up along the way (hi, sugar!)
When first studied, it was believed that you can form habits in just 21 days (wouldn’t that be nice?) – and that’s not anymore the case. A new(er) study from University College London has shown that the usual time to form a habit is 18 to 254 days, with 66 days being the average. That is how long it takes to get this habit to automaticity.
Habit Stacking is taking this one step further while making it one step easier.
With habit stacking, we are creating a new habit, but adding it to one that is already longstanding and fully automated. It then becomes part of a chain of habits or a routine that is created, where the initial habit is what I call the anchor habit. In the worst-case scenario (eg. in survival mode): you will always at least fall back on the anchor habit.
How does it work in real life
Let’s make a habit stacking example:
Imagine You’d like to create a new morning routine (you don’t have one yet) and you want to start by going on a morning walk for 15 minutes first thing in the morning.
With habit stacking you are now looking at what habit you are doing in the morning that is already fully automated where you can attach your new habit to, meaning doing it right after.
In this case I use brushing your teeth as an example (since I just assume the people who have access to the tools would brush their teeth in the morning). So then your first habit stack would look like this:
⚓ Brush your teeth
Go on a 15 min. Morning walk
Now you know that every day after you brush your teeth you will go on a walk.
Why does habit stacking work so well?
When creating a new habit our brain does its very best to put the resistance up and keep us in our survival mode, since that’s what the brain is (was) for. You probably have noticed when you started a new workout plan, it didn’t take long or much for you to have excuses, or something ‘better’ to do.
That’s your brain throwing a little tantrum so the habit wouldn’t get strong enough to be automated. After all our brain loves to be distracted – but not with workouts!
That’s why habit stacking work so well because we are taking one barrier away from our brain, the excuse: I don’t have time for that. You already decided when you are making time for that new habit, you scheduled it (hopefully) so that time is now blocked for that new habit AND since you have an already automated habit right before lined up, your brain is more likely to jump into the next one, too.
The barrier is lower if you add another thing to do while your brain is already busy doing automated things. That means you create more momentum once you are already brushing your teeth – to remember to go on your walk, and actually do it.
That’s why it works so well to stack habits on the back of the anchor habit. Yes, you will still need to repeat the habit and create the actual automation – and the barrier is still lower for our brain than if we started a brand new habit without an anchor.
Habit stacking extended: Building routines that stick
Most of the entrepreneurs out there don’t want to keep just a simple habit stack, they’d like to create a whole routine. But how can you do so by stacking your habits most efficiently? With what I call the habit stacking sandwich.
No worries, you don’t need to eat anything for that. I’ll show you what I mean. Let’s go back to our example of the morning walk. Imagine you also want to start your day by drinking a glass of water
Now we will add the new habit between 2 things you are already naturally doing, in this case waking up & brushing your teeth.
⚓ Wake up
Drink a Glass of Water
⚓ Brush your teeth
Go on a 15 min. Morning walk
You may think “well waking up is not a habit though” – but do you do it every day? You may not look at it as a habit per se but your body sees that a little differently. Based on your circadian rhythms, you have a natural time per day, that your body wakes up, and given that you are in a good state of health, it will be the same time every day +/- 30minutes.
To make the new routine you created stick, it is super important to repeat it, daily (if you can) and for as long as you need to until it becomes automated behavior to you.
As mentioned above this can take anywhere from 18 – 254 days.
What habits will help you create more success?
The question that so many people want to know is, what habits should I integrate into my life? Great question. There are quite a few that will help you to create a rock-solid foundation for your life but also ground you and energize you, for more emotional balance, more energy, and better clarity.
So I will introduce a few to you that you can choose from, and implement depending on what outcome you want to achieve.
COLD SHOWER / REGULAR ICE BATH
(benefits: health, strengthen the immune system, emotional balance, regulated nervous system)
By now most people have heard that a cold shower in the morning helps you increase your overall health and strengthen your immune system. But did you know that the cold morning shower and/or taking regular ice baths also helps with regulating your nervous system & increasing emotional stability? If you haven’t yet, you should put either the cold shower or the ice bath (or if you feel daring, both) on your schedule and get you some of this frosty fun.
GLASS OF WATER AFTER WAKING UP
(benefits: helps with digestion, hydrates the body, clarity)
Drinking a glass of water (minimum 300ml) first thing when you wake up has all of the amazing benefits: it hydrates you after a full night of sleep and no water, it helps the brain to get clarity and supports good digestion. To support not forgetting about it, put a fresh glass full of water on your bedside table so you can swing out of bed and start emptying that glass first thing.
EXERCISE / MOVEMENT
(benefits: health, physical strength, emotional balance/mental health, productivity, and more)
I am fairly sure I don’t have to talk a lot about the benefits of movement or exercise since that’s fairly clear. What I do want to say is this: it does NOT have to be the gym to be effective and healthy for you. You don’t have to do extreme sports (but you can), to make it work.
Sometimes a walk is already enough or stretching. Please remember that not everyone is as able as you may be, some people may not be able to move as easily and freely, and some may be in pain that you can not see. So let’s make sure that we all know movement can mean training your neck muscles with eye movement, or your leg muscles with muscle tension. It can also mean doing great breathing exercises.
Or it can mean going all the way Aerobic, Bungee Jumping, Pole Dancing, and moving our bodies in all the different ways.
WRITE / TALK OUT YOUR THOUGHTS
(benefits: mental clarity, emotional processing & balance, focus, productivity)
The first thing you may now think of, depending on where you are at in your journey, is “that sounds like therapy to me” – and you know what, somewhat it is. Not replacing an actual therapist, but to sit down, write or talk (and record) out all of your thoughts just the way they come up is very therapeutical. It also is very helpful for self-reflection.
Making this a habit can help you see things that are hidden in plain sight, and understand your feelings and emotions better. In the medium and long-term this helps create more emotional stability and hence the ability to focus more on what’s in front of you, rather than on a rollercoaster of emotions.
DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU GONNA DO/KEEP PROMISES
(benefits: increases confidence, self-esteem, and self-assurance aside from living in integrity and being able to rely on yourself)
A lot of people may wonder why I have put this as a habit versus a personality trait – simply because most people can learn it. The way to learn it is, to make it a habit.
That means you start small, you choose one single thing you want to keep doing every day, or 3 times a week, or whatever applies – and you do it no matter what (obviously there are always emergencies you may have to attend to or other exceptions, but it is important to create standards and expectations for what is an acceptable expectation for you, and what isn’t. Then follow your rules. Keep your own promises to yourself. And when you did this long enough start doing this with and for others, too. Soon enough your integrity increases as well as your self-esteem and confidence, knowing you are reliable in any situation.
KEEP THE SAME SLEEP / WAKE UP TIMES – EVEN ON WEEKENDS
(benefits: helps to balance your body’s 24-hr cycles aka circadian rhythms, increase energy and reduce energy dips, helps with more consistent energy and mental clarity)
I hear over and over again how people “sleep in” or “catch up on sleep” not knowing that
a) there is no actual catching up – once you lost hours of sleep your body feels the impact and needs to deal with it (however long that takes and whether you feel it or not)
b) with sleeping in you are creating instability for your body in its natural biorhythms like our 24-hour biological cycles that support us in many different ways to perform at our best (aka circadian rhythms)
Both of these instabilities have consequences your body has to rectify in some or the other way. If you read my article on why coffee is not your best friend, then you know how much sleep deprivation is costing you and what detrimental effects it can have on the body (even just 1 hour less than your ideal sleep time per night!). To keep yourself in balance as best as possible, make it a habit to go to bed & wake up at the same time every day, yes even on weekends. No one said you have to wake up at 5 am anyway, so you can easily choose the best time for your body and stick with it.
When will you start habit stacking?
The habits above certainly are neither a complete list nor are they all necessary for you to implement. They simply are an inspiration for you to get started or improve your daily habits.
So the question is: where to get started? Choose whatever outcome you currently want to get or enhance and what habit you will need to implement to achieve this outcome.
In the next step you will look for anchor habits in your life that already exist, those you do automatically or know the process of step by step without having to really think of it. Choose the one that is the best anchor for your new habit and – voila – you are ready to habit stack!
Tell me in the comments down below: which one will you start habit stacking with?