How Habit Stacking Builds Habits That Last

How Habit Stacking Builds Habits That Last

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? How’s that going for you?

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions involve a new habit: eating better, reading more, or learning a new skill. Figuring out how to implement a new habit is a challenge when your day already feels so full. But making it last? That’s a whole other battle.

Habit stacking is one way to get there. It’s like automation for your brain. In the same way that IFTTT uses “if this then that” logic to simplify your life, habit stacking uses triggers and actions to help you create habits that stick.

The habit stacking process was popularized by the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Want to know how and why it works? Spoiler alert: it has to do with the difference in the number of neurons between adults and babies.

How does habit stacking work?

Habit stacking works by latching a new habit onto an existing habit, instead of building it in isolation. Think of your fledgling new behavior as a fish. Is it easier for a fish to swim on its own, or to hitch a ride on a bigger fish? If it works for the remora, why not your habits? Yes, I looked up the name of that fish just for this article.

This process starts with choosing the right trigger. Your trigger needs to be something simple that you’re already doing regularly. It could be as simple as “when I make a cup of coffee” or “when I get into bed.” The trigger needs to be as frequent as the habit you’re trying to develop. So if you’re trying to read every day, you should make sure your trigger is daily, too.

Let’s use “reading more” as an example. You want to be a better leader, so you picked up a book about emotional intelligence. You really want to get through it, so you decide you’ll read at least one page a day. You also think you should get your reading in before you leave for work in the morning. So how do you take this from “new habit” to “habit stacking?”

What are some other examples of an existing habit you go through before work? If you’re a coffee drinker, this might be when you brew your first cup. If that’s the case, you’ve just found your perfect trigger.

With habit stacking, “read every day” becomes something like: “When I make my first cup of coffee, I’ll read a page of this book.”

And that’s it. You’ve set up your first habit stack. Like any new habit, it’ll take some getting used to, and you’ll need to put in some extra effort at the start. You could put a sticky note on your coffee maker to remind you that you need to read. But, after a while, reading will go from a new behavior to an automatic part of your morning since you’ll do it right after you make your morning cup of coffee.

Why does it work?

You’re already doing it.

Don’t believe me? When you go to the bathroom you wash your hands, right? You do it without thinking, because this sequence was drilled into you when you were young, and you’ve done it so many times that it’s become automatic. You use the bathroom, you wash your hands. When X happens, you do Y. That’s habit stacking.

And there’s real science behind it. In Atomic Habits, James Clear references a 2007 Oxford University study that compared the brains of newborn babies to those of adults. According to this study, the average adult has 41% fewer neurons than the average newborn.

Wait, that can’t be right, can it? Adults know so many more things than newborns. We can feed and clothe ourselves. Some of us can also do calculus, code, or recite bad poetry. But here’s the thing; having more neurons doesn’t necessarily make you smarter.

Adults have fewer neurons because our brain has taken time to get really good at doing things a certain way. Newborns need all those neurons because they still have to learn how to do everything. Their brain needs to assimilate tons of information and figure out the best way to get things done.

As our brain learns to do things, the neural pathways needed to do those things become stronger. Other pathways that we don’t use become weaker. They can even be completely eliminated. This is called synaptic pruning.

Habit stacking relies on that process to make your habits stick. It takes something you already know how to do (with a strong neural pathway) and uses it as a base to develop something you aren’t doing yet (with a weaker neural pathway). That’s why your new habits will start becoming more natural as you repeat them.

Bonus tip: combining habit stacks

Basic habit stacking involves pairing a habit you want to develop with an old habit. But once you start getting better at that new habit, it can itself become a cue for a new one. Pretty soon, you can make your morning routine effortless just by combining a few small habits and repeating that chain day after day.

For example, if brushing your teeth is first thing you do in the morning, you might decide to stack a morning walk onto it. Then, as going on that walk takes less and less mental effort, you can add meditation to your routine. The resulting habit stack would look something like this:

Wake up in the morning → Brush teeth → Go on morning walk → Meditate when I walk in the door

By lining up new habits with existing ones over time, you can quickly build the daily routine of your dreams.

6 habit stacking examples

Need some inspiration? Here are some simple examples of habit stacking for you to try. Remember, you want to pair a new desirable behavior with a current habit.

When I finish work, I’ll immediately head to the gym

Taking care of your physical health can be tough when you’re working long hours on an important project — and it’s all too easy to push that gym visit back to later. But with this habit stack, you can ensure you get that workout in as soon as you close your laptop for the day.

As soon as my alarm clock rings, I’ll drink a glass of water

Drinking water early in the morning can help wake you up, so this habit stack is especially useful if you’re trying to limit your caffeine intake.

When a meeting ends, I’ll take a 10-minute eye break (or get up and stretch)

Zoom fatigue is very real, and an over-reliance on video chat platforms can make your workday that much more difficult to get through. With this habit stack, you can give your body the rest it needs before you dive in to your next task.

When I’m done checking my email, I’ll take on one hard work task

This habit works well with something like the one task method or eat the frog, which makes you consciously pick out the toughest tasks from your to-do list. It’ll also keep you from mindlessly scrolling through your list looking for something to do.

When I finish lunch, I’ll check my calendar to make sure I don’t miss any meetings

Despite everyone’s best efforts, sometimes you’ll get booked for a same-day, last-minute meeting. If you don’t want to find yourself running from meeting room to meeting room to make up for lost time, this is a good habit to have.

When I stand up to take a break, I’ll read one page from my current read

Proactively seeking out new sources of knowledge is a great way to become — and remain — a top performer at your job. If you’re struggling to get in time to read and learn, try tying it to little breaks you take between big tasks.

Habit stacking at Unito

So what does this look like in the workplace? Here’s an example from my workday.

At Unito, we use Slack to do an asynchronous scrum every day. The purpose of that is twofold; you can see what anyone else in the company — including the CEO — is doing, and you get a couple of minutes to plan your day.

My contributions to our scrum haven’t always been the most… regular. It’s just too easy to get caught up in what I need to be doing that day, and sometimes it’s almost time to go home before I realize I haven’t posted in our scrum channel.

And that defeats the whole purpose of the scrum. If someone needs to find out what I’m working on, they need to ask me instead of checking the scrum. On top of that, planning your day after it’s already done is something of an exercise in futility.

So I set up a simple habit stack for myself. I wanted to make sure I was posting in the scrum channel before doing anything else, otherwise I knew I’d just forget to do it. And there’s one thing I need to do before I can get any work done.

Opening my laptop.

Here’s the resulting habit stack: “When I first open my laptop in the morning, I’ll post in our asynchronous scrum.”

And it worked. I’m posting regularly, and it’s the first thing I do when I come into the office. Now, come five o’clock, I’m no longer scratching my head thinking “wait, what did I get done today?”

Try habit stacking

Habit stacking is easy to use and makes implementing new habits simpler. Once you’ve had enough practice with it, you’ll be able to find all sorts of triggers to build habits off of. New Year’s resolution? Piece of cake.