If you’ve ever tried to build new, healthy habits, you might’ve noticed that it poses its own challenges. While building healthy habits is the best way to make lifelong, sustainable changes, getting started often comes with resistance. It can feel like a lack of willpower when in reality, it’s your brain pushing back on what’s unfamiliar.
The good news is, there are tools and practices we have that can make building and sustaining new habits much easier and more familiar to our brain and routines.
One of the most common techniques habit experts use to make the habit building process easier is Habit Stacking.
What is Habit Stacking?
James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” describes habit stacking as a special form of “implementation intention” in which you attach new habits to current habits.
The more you do something, the better your brain gets at doing that task without trying, until that task is on autopilot and happens without you even thinking.
Think about the little habits for example. Waking up every morning and brushing your teeth without thinking. At one point in your life, there was resistance to that task because as a kid, you had to get used to it. As you got older, your brain got better and more familiar with brushing your teeth, until you stopped thinking about it all together and just did it.
Think about the time in college when you first started drinking coffee. It wasn’t yet a habit or a part of your routine, so you wouldn’t brew it at home, and halfway through the day you’d buy a coffee when you absolutely needed it. As you continued to drink coffee, you started to attach it to a morning habit – likely breakfast or preparing your backpack for the day – until it became a normal part of your routine that again, happened on autopilot. You no longer needed to “make time” for it or think about it, everyday you just brewed your coffee.
Habit Stacking is simply choosing an existing, easy habit and stacking a new one on simultaneously.
Morning, Afternoon, & Evening Habit Stacking
1. Habit Stacking in the Morning:
My first experience with habit stacking came in the morning while I was brewing my coffee in an attempt to get myself to drink more water. As soon as the water was poured in the Keurig and the coffee pot was tapped on, I was walking my water bottle over to the refrigerator, filling it up, and drinking 2-3 cups of water before I had a sip of coffee.
This helped me start my morning with water and snowballed me into thinking about it more, drinking it more throughout the day, and overall starting my day off on a productive foot. It’s hard to stand up and chug water in the kitchen randomly just because. But if I’m already doing something (like brewing my coffee) I can easily fill that time by stacking my water onto it with a little bit of intention.
“While my coffee is brewing each morning, I’ll drink 2-3 cups of water.”
2. Habit Stacking in the Afternoon:
Another way to habit stack is at lunch time. If you know me, you know I think lunch is the most underrated meal of the day and everyone should be making time for it.
Let’s say every afternoon from 2- 4pm you find yourself snacking on whatever is in the breakroom or pantry. Instead of trying to “break” that deeply ingrained habit of mindlessly snacking, you can habit stack.
While your lunch is heating up, you could be preparing a balanced snack of greek yogurt and blueberries or sliced cucumbers and hummus and keep it to the side for that 3pm snack time. By stacking on the new habit of preparing a balanced snack with the old habit of eating lunch everyday, you’ve set yourself up for success without feeling resistance to “breaking” the snacking habit but instead stacking and replacing it with your feel good, new habit.
“While my lunch is in the microwave, I’ll put my yogurt and berries in a bowl for later.”
3. Habit Stacking in the Evening:
Piggybacking off of the afternoon habit stacking, I’ve become a big fan of brewing tea or hot water for Alpha Greens while I’m eating dinner so the warm drink can be ready for me by the time I’m ready to relax and unwind at the end of the night. I call this Sips Not Chips™. I stacked on a new habit of brewing tea, with my old habit of preparing dinner, so I could more easily replace my post dinner snacking habit with sips, not chips (a warm drink instead of random snacks).
“While I’m eating dinner, I’ll warm up some milk and water so I can easily grab Alpha Greens for dessert.”
I’m a nutritionist so I used a lot of food examples but keep in mind, habit stacking can be used in creating better relationships, high productivity, improved movement, and so much more!
You can attach a new habit of grabbing your tennis shoes to your old habit of leaving the house every morning to make going for an afternoon walk easier.
You can attach a new habit of kissing your spouse to your old habit of going to bed every night to improve your relationship.
You can attach a new habit of journaling to using the bathroom every morning (gross maybe, but you’re already sitting there) to increase your gratitude and happiness.
I use habit stacking with my clients all the time and continue to use it in my daily life. It’s a method that proves to work with your brain and body and provides the path of least resistance to the changes you want to make.