Habits are the foundation of our days. They make up our routines. Our systems. Our start and our finish. And establishing them gets harder and harder the older we get.
Add it to the list of the blessings we receive with each new year, right? But the good news with habit development is that there’s a straightforward life hack that can quite literally change your life.
Allow me to introduce you to Habit Stacking, my friend. After reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits several years ago, I learned this little tool and have used it for everything from starting a morning workout routine to getting my partner to empty the dishwasher each morning.
WHAT IS HABIT STACKING
From the time we’re born, our brains are busy building neural pathways for the habits and routines we frequently do. Our rubbery little child brains are primed for creating these new habits, even though anyone who has raised a toddler will tell you that it takes a painful amount of repetition (brush your teeth, wash your hands, say thank you).
However, as we reach adulthood, our brains begin to undergo “synaptic pruning,” which removes extra synapses it has deemed irrelevant and leaves the ones we regularly rely on. Great news from an evolutionary standpoint, this “pruning” saves wasted space, conserves energy, and can make us more efficient, but it really complicates things when you decide to become a yogi at age 47.
By connecting a new habit to an existing one, you place it along the same neural pathway, making it easier for your brain to remember and initiate.
HOW TO HABIT STACK
Teaching an old dog new tricks is totally possible, and Habit Stacking will make it that much easier on you. Here’s how it works: Simply connect the new habit you want to develop to one of the well-established habits you do routinely. By connecting the new habit to an existing one, you place it along the same neural pathway, making it easier for your brain to remember and initiate.
I recommend grabbing a piece of paper and making a list of all the habits you perform every day on the left side. List them in chronological order from when you wake up until sleep (turn off your alarm, scroll Instagram, make the bed, brush your teeth, walk the dog, pick up a coffee, etc.).
Next, make a list of 3-6 habits you want to work on over the next month along the right side of the page. Then, draw a line from the established habit on the left to the new habit on the right that it can connect to. Try to connect habits that take place in the same location, at similar times of day, and a frequency that aligns with your goal for the new habit (i.e., If you want to meditate every day, don’t connect it to an existing habit that you only do once a week).
Here are some examples (established habit in bold, new habit in italics):
After my alarm goes off in the morning, I will drink the 12 oz glass of water I keep next to the bed.
After I make the bed in the morning, I will do 5 minutes of stretching on the bedroom floor.
After I get the coffee brewing, I will journal for 5 minutes at the kitchen table.
When I walk my dog past the library, I will go up and down the steps 5 times.
To make your “stack” even stronger, include as much detail as possible (when you’ll do it, how often/much, where you’ll be, etc.), and start small. As Clear says so eloquently, “A habit needs to be established before it can be improved.” So, instead of trying to do 30 minutes of yoga each day, aim for 3 minutes, then increase it. Or, instead of trying to read an entire book this month, try 10 minutes of reading each week.
Once you have a stack that feels well established, you can increase the frequency or duration of your new habit, or you can add to the stack by attaching another new habit. For example:
After I make the bed in the morning, I will do 5 minutes of stretching on the bedroom floor. And after I do 5 minutes of stretching on the bedroom floor, I will do a 3-minute meditation.
And that’s it! Simply connect new habits to old ones that you perform regularly, and you’ll be well on your way to establishing new habits with ease.