Wondering how to create a habit? While starting a new routine may seem daunting, there’s a science-backed trick that can help you easily reach your goals. Habit stacking is the practice of adding a new habit to an existing one. Find out more about the practice to help you build healthy habits and some of our favorite habit stacks to try.
As a new year kicks off, you might be feeling that cyclical itch to set goals or create new healthy habits in the new year. However, if you’ve made new year’s resolutions in the past, you’re probably well aware of how challenging it can be to get those intentions to actually stick.
“The biggest struggle when it comes to creating new habits is that we try and go from 0 to 100 overnight,” says Rhysa Sisco, an occupational therapist and health and fitness coach. “Most people stumble when it comes to creating realistic goals for new habits and then get frustrated when they don’t meet them, and that results in them giving up,” she adds. Despite the challenge, creating and following through with new habits is actually doable—but there’s a catch. Instead of doing all of the things, making small changes that add up to an actual goal or intention can make a big difference.
Creating more realistic goals and taking baby steps to get there is the secret sauce to getting habits to stick, but it’s not the only trick. For a surefire way to build new habits, experts recommend habit stacking.
What Is Habit Stacking?
“One of the easiest ways to ensure that you make a habit stick is by stacking it,” says Allison Tibbs, a certified personal trainer and healthy lifestyle coach. “This is basically taking a new habit you want to incorporate into your day and combining it with a habit you currently do consistently,” she adds.
Habit stacking is a total game-changer because, instead of overwhelming ourselves—and our days—with even more to do, we can look at things through the lens of habits and those pockets between the tasks and practices we already do with little effort. “When we think about all of the things that we do habitually on a daily basis, it feels a bit more feasible to simply stack or combine a new habit with something that you are already doing,” Tibbs notes. She adds that this concept can remove the tension or pressure of having to do one more thing when you may already feel at capacity.
By coupling a new habit with an already established habit, you can create an anchor, which prompts your brain to partake in the new habit. “All habits build these neural pathways in our brain—think of it as a hiking trail, it’s easier to make it down to the river following the established trail than forging a new one,” says Gigi Hunt, RN, BSN, a health coach who specializes in helping busy moms build better habits in order to improve their wellness. She explains that habits are similar in that using an already established habit or neural pathway will make it easier to be successful at sticking to a new practice.
How Can You Use Habit Stacking?
Habit stacking is all about pairing a new habit with something you already do consistently. “You are piggybacking on the connections in your brain that you already have to help you build a new habit until it becomes an automatic routine in your day,” says Sisco. The concept of habit stacking works with almost any goal, however, Hunt recommends breaking down the goal into smaller and more manageable goals, as adding these small changes to already existing behaviors is highly effective.
“The goal is to make sure that it is a habit that is not too demanding or requires too many steps to achieve, especially when you’re just starting out,” says Tibbs. To get started, she recommends making note of the simple habits you’re already consistent with, including brushing your teeth, walking the dog, checking emails, or cleaning the kitchen before bed. Then, see where a new habit would make the most sense to stack or combine.
Although habit stacking can help establish new habits quicker, Sisco says there are additional things you can to do ensure the habit truly sticks. “My favorite tip for anyone getting started with habit stacking is to pick a cue and a reward for each habit,” she explains. This looks like picking a cue in the environment—either a current habit, a timer on your phone or a certain time of day—to tell your brain that it’s time to complete the new habit. Once that habit is complete, you reward yourself for it, following a simple cue + new habit + reward pattern. “It can be as simple as when you turn off your coffee machine in the morning (cue), you remember to take your supplements (new habit), and then you reward yourself with your favorite cup of coffee (reward),” says Sisco.
Our Favorite Habit Stacks to Try
Ready to get started with habit stacking? Here are some of our favorite ways to implement new healthy habits in our routine with ease.
Remembering to take supplements can feel tricky, but it’s actually quite easy when habit-stacking. One of the best ways to add taking supplements to your daily habits is to stack it with your morning cup of coffee or tea. We recommend keeping supplement bottles next to your coffee maker or tea kettle so you can wash them down while waiting for your water to boil. Once boiled, make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee and enjoy. Have a sleep supplement to take? Leave it by your toothbrush or where you plug your phone in at night.
No Checking Emails First Thing in the Morning
If you want to break a bad habit like checking emails first thing in the morning, consider why that is a habit in the first place and whether you can replace it with something else. For example: We used to have a habit of checking emails on our phone when we sat down to drink a cup of matcha in the early mornings. To break this, we began placing our latest crochet project on the coffee table (where we usually sit) and leaving our phone in another room. Instead of drinking tea and checking emails, we now start our morning drinking tea and making progress on a crochet project, away from screens.
Drink More Water
Drinking more water is another habit made entirely possible through habit stacking. “First thing in the morning, when you brew coffee, drink 8 ounces of water, then drink your coffee afterward,” says Sisco. You can do this throughout the day with food and drink-related habits—such as drinking another glass of water while heating up your lunch—to ensure you drink a little more water.
Regardless of what your new habit is, it’s important to keep it simple and start off with smaller changes to build up to something more intricate—it’s also important to cut yourself some slack. “Take your time to find what will work and focus on the effort, not perfection,” says Tibbs. She adds that habit stacking can not only be an easy and effective way to establish new habits, but also a method for getting more out of the day (and breaking away from some of those pesky habits, like scrolling on your phone, too).
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