by Caitlin O’Donnell

For most people, changing their lives is intimidating, no matter how much that new habit or routine would improve their health, mood, relationships or other important aspects of life. Our brains are wired to keep habits and routines, not form new ones. When we form a habit, the brain makes neuronal connections, stengthening every time we keep that habit. However, the brain also weeds out weaker connections, which is why creating new habits is challenging. The brain weeds those connections out before they can become strong.

What Is Habit Stacking?
Part of the challenge of forming new habits is that the brain still needs to have neuronal connections for that new habit. However, the brain has solid connections to habits we already have. Habit stacking takes advantage of these existing connections by pairing the new habit with a current one or something that happens routinely. For example, a person trying to meditate more may choose to meditate every day after they brushing their teeth or right after their kids get on the bus to school.

How To Get Started

  • Decide on a goal. If it is a sizeable goal, break the overarching goal into smaller, more manageable pieces. For example, start with something as easy as possible when breaking down the goal to work out 30 minutes daily to improve sleep.
  • It may not be necessary to break every goal into pieces, but for those that do, try to keep the pieces as small as possible. For example, when breaking down the goal to work out 30 minutes daily to improve sleep, start with something as easy as possible. It can be as small as aiming to do one push-up per day. This goal is so simple and attainable that most people wind up doing more once they get started.
  • List all current habits and things that regularly occur at home. Some common activities to stack with habits include eating a meal, making coffee, showering, brushing teeth or kids coming home from school.
  • Choose 1-2 smaller goals to focus on and pair them with a habit or regular occurrence. For example, a person trying to drink more water may drink a glass of water every morning while they check their emails.
  • Celebrate successes, no matter how small and reevaluate regularly. If it was too difficult to stick to the habit, why is that? Could the habit be attached to a better cue? Is the habit too ambitious for a first step?

Additional Tips

  • Have visual cues, such as leaving running shoes by the door to remember to go for a run.
  • Pair unpleasant new habits with enjoyable tasks. For example, a person may aim to do a new work task they dread right before their daily 10-minute walk.
  • Set milestones. If the overall goal is to start exercising for 30 minutes every day and the first step of the goal is to work out 10 minutes per day, celebrate a week or a month of exercising for 10 minutes per day before adding more time!