Habit stacking

In this time of virus, a lot of us are trying to accomplish new things we didn’t have the time or motivation to do before.

We’re trying to learn new skills.
We’re trying to unlearn old habits.
We’re trying to exercise more.
We’re trying to eat better with what we have available.
We’re trying to be more present with loved ones (digitally and in person).
We’re trying to survive being locked into the same space as family and flatmates for the foreseeable future.

 

I recently came across an excellent tool in this article by James Clear to help this process along — habit stacking. In short, we’re making it easier to learn a new habit by building it on top of a pre-existing habit (further, cue). The key is that the cue needs to be something specific we already do during the day, preferably at a regular time. To quote from the article: “By linking your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, you make it more likely that you’ll stick to the new behavior.”

Habit stacking is built on a very simple formula:
After/Before [CUE], I will [NEW HABIT].

For example:

  • After I wake up, I will immediately get out of bed and stretch for 5 minutes.
  • Before I make my second cup of coffee for the day, I will drink a glass of water.
  • After I shower/bath, I will stay in the bathroom and meditate for 2 minutes.

 

There are two keys ideas to make this practice work for you.

  1. Chose a cue that is highly specific and immediately actionable.
  2. Choose a cue at a practical time of the day that suits the habit you want to build.

 

In my case, I want to start writing more regularly. To follow the points above, I need to find a good cue. Something like “when I finish work” is too nebulous (in my work environment, I don’t have any specific cues for finishing my work for the day). But “On Tuesdays and Thursdays after I put my boy to bed for his midday nap” is specific, immediately actionable and a practical time of day for me.

 

The more specific and actionable the cue is, the easier you will find it to build a new habit around. In my case, something like “when I break for lunch” might sound specific, but does that mean:

  • When I close my laptop before eating lunch?
  • After I have made my lunch but before I’ve eaten it?
  • While I’m eating lunch?

Whereas “On Tuesdays and Thursdays after I put my boy to bed for his midday nap” is precise, repetitive, and an easy cue on which to stack a habit.

 

Choosing a time that suits the habit you want to build requires you to consider the habit you want to build within your own context. For example, you can add drinking more water to mostly any cue at any time of the day, But if your new habit requires focus or a reasonable amount of time (such as exercise or creative output), you should consider:

  • How much uninterrupted time will I have before/after the cue?
  • Will I be suffering from decision fatigue at that time of the day? Will that affect my ability to practice my new habit?
  • Are there regular environmental (weather / available space / family or work interruptions etc.) factors that will influence my ability to practice the habit?

 

If the cue for your creative habit is closing your laptop at the end of the day, but you finish most work days exhausted, you’re very unlikely to sustain a new habit at that time of the day.
Or if you want to carve out creative time for yourself in the evenings after supper, but you know that putting the kids to bed can take anything from 10 minutes to 3 hours…well, you’re just going to end up frustrated.

Choose a cue that is specific and actionable, but also one that fits your context.

 

Finally, the real value of habit stacking is… well, that you can use it to stack multiple habits on top of each other. For example:

  1. After I wake up, I will immediately get out of bed and stretch for 5 minutes.
  2. After I have stretched, I will make my partner and I coffee
  3. After I finish my coffee, I will pray / meditate for 3 minutes.
  4. After I pray / meditate, I will kiss my partner and move to my work space (even if it is just a place where you prep to leave for the office)
  5. Once I am in my work space, I will check my diary for any appointments / meetings, and make a list of anything I need to bring or prepare for them

And so on. How you use this tool is limited to your context and creativity. And of course, the amount of discipline you have to actually follow through.

 

I’m still getting started with this tool, so I’ll have to get back to you on how it works for me. Has this tool impacted your life? Let me know in the comments below.

 


 

There are a lot of fascinating theories related to this one which I am not going to get into for the practice of staying focused and to keep this post to a readable length, but you are welcome to dig deeper if you have the time and inclination:

 

  1. The cycle of building new habits (Cue — Craving — Response — Reward)
  2. Implementation intention
  3. Synaptic pruning
  4. Decision fatigue

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