Habit stacking: How to build new habits by taking advantage of old ones
May 9, 2022

Habit stacking: How to build new habits by taking advantage of old ones

Rachel Wadsley, PhD
"Little hinges swing big doors." S.J. Scott

Change is hard. The status quo is effortless and comfortable. Plus, your inner critic reminds you of times you lost motivation, thought change was too challenging, or decided it was not worth the time and headache. What if you could dip your toes into creating healthier habits instead of jumping into the deep end? 

The essence of habit stacking is simple. You pair a new routine with a habit you're currently doing. Then little by little, you build on this new routine until it becomes a habit. 

Habit stacking is a term coined by S.J. Scott in his book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take 5 Minutes or Less. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, built on Scott's concept by talking about the ease and value of getting 1% better each day and how much change that creates over time.  

Why does habit stacking work?

We make 35,000 decisions each day which breaks down to 2 a second! So it's no wonder our brains and bodies prefer the comfort of a routine. This cuts down on decision-making fatigue.

If you think that number sounds ridiculous, I don't blame you. Let's break down potential decisions you made while reading the past couple of sentences:

  • Keep reading
  • Think this lady was off her rocker (35,000 decisions!!!)
  • Ignore a notification on your phone
  • Adjust your position (or glasses in my case)
  • Take a sip of a drink or bite of food

Most of the decisions we make are tiny and don't require a lot of thought or effort. A habit is much like all those mini decisions. It's something you do without thinking about it which makes it easier for you to function and go about your day. 

Habit stacking takes advantage of the brainpower you're already using. Because this takes less time and effort, there is less resistance to change, and the new routine is easier to adopt as a habit. Creating a new routine this way uses a built-in reminder of the behavior you're used to performing. 

Steps to stack habits and improve your life

1. List out your current routines and habits

Mentally walk through your daily routine and write down all the things you do (no matter how small). Keep that sheet with you over the next couple of days and see if there is anything you need to add. 

2. Brainstorm habits you want to create

Create another list with the change or changes you want to make. You’re going to pick one habit to start with. Pick something that you feel will be easier and give you a quick win to boost your confidence and habit-making skills.

3. Attach a new habit to a current habit 

Now it's time to look at your lists and see what time and location the current and new habits would naturally happen together or make sense together. 

4. Focus on small wins and mini habits

Start small. We are talking tiny! This new routine will be something you gradually build on. What is the smallest amount of time you could break this new habit down to? A good starting point is seconds to a couple of minutes. 

5. Stay positive and consistent with your goals

Keep pushing forward. Pair the new routine with the current habit until it becomes easy and feels like an extension of the original behavior. Then you can start building up that routine. When you have made that habit part of your life, look for the next easiest item on the list and repeat the process. 

Example of habit stacking to drink more water

Let’s put this into action. We will look at my goal of drinking more water in the morning. 

  1. Every morning I wake up, pet the cat, brew coffee, scoop the litter, feed the cat, get dressed, make breakfast, and sit down to drink a cup of coffee and eat.
  2. I want to drink more water and less coffee. Let's be honest - adding in water sounds more doable than cutting back on coffee!!! Or at least more tolerable. So my target routine is to drink a glass of water in the morning. 
  3. I could drink water at any of those spots in my morning routine. Drinking it when I wake up would require me to put water by my bed the night before and the cat might knock it over, so that's out. But I could pair this with making my coffee!
  4. I will start by getting a glass out of the cupboard with my coffee cup in the morning. Okay, the first step is done. Once I'm regularly getting that glass down, I'll move to the next step of filling my glass with water when I fill the coffee pot. Then I'll take one sip of water while the coffee brews until I'm eventually drinking the entire glass of water in the morning. 
  5. Now that I'm drinking more water, I'm naturally drinking less coffee because I realize the water clears my head a bit, and I enjoy feeling hydrated. Plus, I don't want a lot of extra fluids after drinking water. So I’ve actually built two healthier actions into my life while working on one.  

Wrap up

There you have it - habit stacking in a nutshell. Using a tracking app and working with a trainer are great ways to brainstorm, troubleshoot, and stay on track. Get a 14 day free trial of trainwell (formerly CoPilot) and work with a real person who will help you create a custom habit plans around movement, nutrition, mindfulness, and rest. 

Use one of those 35,000 decisions to invest in your wellbeing, and click the link below!

Start your free trainwell trial now!

Written by Rachel Wadsley, PhD

Explore more trainwell articles