Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of habit stacking.
If you haven’t, I’m going to tell you exactly what it is in this post. But if you have heard of habit stacking, don’t click away because I’m also going to talk about 2 mistakes that I see very often as a behavior change expert. These can make your habit stacks way less effective. I’m essentially here to bring you the real science behind self-help.
What is habit stacking?
As someone on Instagram and YouTube in the self-help space, one of the terms I hear all the time is habit stacking. So let’s start with what habit stacking actually is.
Habit stacking is a tool that is designed to help you cultivate routines.
You take a habit that already exists in your life and a new habit that you want to adopt, and you put them together. For example, let’s say that you want to get into the habit of physical activity.
Maybe after you brush your teeth every night, you do 1 single pushup. That is often the example of habit stacks that I hear. But spoiler alert, that is one of the habit stacks that makes both of the mistakes that I’m going to tell you about in just a second.
So just to review, habit number 1 is something you already have in your life. Habit number 2 is something you want to adopt. You stack them together. The idea is that since you’re already doing habit number 1, it becomes easier to add habit number 2. Eventually you can stack on habit number 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, until you have a full-blown routine.
Mistake #1: Using an unstable foundation
Awesome, right? Yes, awesome in theory. But here is where people run into trouble:. You start with a habit that’s unstable to begin with. Here’s example: Let’s say that you’re really trying to add the habit of reading 10 pages every night. Right now you have an existing habit of putting your phone down away from you at 8:00 PM. You think to yourself, oh my gosh, awesome. After I put my phone down and put it away, then I will read 10 pages.
Here’s my question for you: How consistently are you putting that phone away at 8:00 PM? If you’re achieving 90 to 100% consistency, that is an awesome habit to use as something to stack onto. However, a lot of people choose habits as a basis that they’re not actually doing regularly, or only choose habits they do in the most ideal circumstances.
I’ll give you another personal example from my life. One of the things that I am trying to do more often is meditate. I’m trying to get in 5 minutes every single day. Originally, I had that stacked with the habit of working out. So I would go to the gym and do my workout. Then I would go into the yoga room, sit down on a mat and meditate.
That was awesome, except… if I get stressed, that can impact my gym adherence. The days that I skip the gym are the days I need meditation the most, yet those are the days that habit stack isn’t going to be present.
Instead, build on a firm habit
So instead, I want to tie that new habit of meditation to a habit I’m doing no matter what, even on my worst days. So what I’m doing now, is that after I drink my coffee in the morning, I meditate for 5 minutes. This is awesome because it means I will actually stay awake while I’m meditating. But also, I drink coffee even on the days that I’m really stressed.
Even if I wake up early, I drink coffee. If I wake up at 10:00 AM I drink coffee. So even if I’m having a rough morning, that habit stack still puts meditation in place in my life at the time when I need it the most.
So that is mistake number 1 that I don’t want you to make. Do not stack a new habit that’s going to benefit you onto a habit that is inconsistent to begin with.
Mistake #2: Nonsense pairings
Let’s move on to mistake number 2. This is honestly the more common mistake I see, which is that you’re pairing together habits that are completely nonsensical. Let’s go back to the brush your teeth and do a single pushup. Those 2 habits don’t make any sense together. Same thing honestly, with brushing your teeth at night and taking medication. If that medication is in the kitchen, all of a sudden you have to break out of what you’re doing. You have to leave the bathroom, go all the way into the kitchen, take your pills, and then go back to the bathroom.
Habit stacking should be easy for your brain to understand
That’s not an effective habit stack because habit stacks should be easy for your brain to understand. They should be tasks that are similar in terms of energy level or similar in terms of theme.
Let me tell you about another bad example that I hear often. I see people say, okay, after I drink my coffee in the morning, then I’m going to do 30 minutes of physical exercise. Let me ask you this: If you’re sitting there on your couch quietly drinking your coffee, having an amazing moment, are you going to want to jump up and move into physical activity? No, of course not.
But if you start with, After I drink my coffee, then I’m going to put my coffee cup in the sink, and then you move into, After I’m putting my coffee cup in the sink I’m already up and moving, then I’m going to go put my leggings on. After I put my leggings on, then I’m going to go do my workout. All of a sudden, your habits are much more linked together because they are connected in terms of energy, theme, or location.
Effective habit stacking
So let’s review and recap. What makes a habit stack actually effective?
Number 1, it starts with something you do really consistently.
Number 2, it considers your energy level when you’re doing that first thing. If your energy level is high, you can pair a high energy habit with it. If your energy level is low, you need to pair a low energy habit with it.
And thing number 3, it considers location. You don’t want to be be-bopping all over your house because that is just going to distract you, make you think about other things, and prevent that habit stack from actually turning into the routine it deserves.
Now, what I want to hear from you in the comments is what habit stack are you going to try out? I want you to tell me 1 behavior that is really consistent in your life, and one thing that you might stack on top of it, and let me know how it goes over the next couple of weeks. If you decide that you need a little bit of help, a little bit of education, a little bit more change knowledge in your toolbox, make sure you check out my Change Academy membership, because I teach stuff like this every single month. It's essentially a workout membership, but for your brain. So you're learning those change skills that you need to actually become the new you.
If you want to learn more about creating effective habits, check out my videos here.