Have you ever decided to make a big healthy change in your life? Maybe you bought a piece of exercise equipment, or joined a gym, or decided to overhaul your diet.
For most of us, it doesn’t take long to realize that major lifestyle changes require huge effort, create some upheaval and are really hard to sustain. But suppose we could develop new, healthy habits and even lose some not-so-healthy habits without all that effort and upheaval, and even without changing our regular routine?
That’s the idea behind habit stacking – a method designed to help us meet our goals without turning our lives upside down or setting us up for failure.
It is hard to know who first came up with the term, habit stacking. It may be S.J. (also known as Steve) Scott in his book, Habit Stacking–97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less, published in 2014.
No matter who coined the term, just about every book on habit written during the past ten years has discussed this concept because it turns out that the easiest way is the best way when it comes to creating new habits.
The idea behind habit stacking is to leverage an existing habit – something you already do every day, by adding a tiny additional habit that moves you one step closer to a bigger goal, like better health.
There are three steps to this process:
1. Identify a Consistent Habit: You start with a habit that you already do consistently, like brushing your teeth in the morning. This is your anchor habit.
2. Attach a New Habit: You then add a new, small habit immediately after the existing one. This could be something like doing two minutes of stretching or a 30-second plank right after brushing your teeth.
3. Sequential Stacking: As you get comfortable with the new habit, you can add another habit to the stack. For example, after your two minutes of stretching, you could do a minute of deep breathing for stress reduction or drink a full glass of water to jump-start your metabolism.
Habit stacking can be life-changing, but only if you start small and stay consistent. This is because mini habits, done consistently, will have a compound effect and result in huge changes. A large effort, for example exercising for an hour, done once in a while will not positively affect your health at all.
The general rule is that each habit you add to your stack should take less than five minutes (two minutes is a good target) to complete and should not require a lot of brain power.
The idea is to make this new habit automatic after a few weeks. At that point, you can extend the habit or add another to the stack. What seems inconsequential, when done steadily can create great change. This is known as the compounding effect.
The compounding effect is often illustrated with the penny story. Imagine you’re given two choices:
1. You receive $1 million upfront.
2. You receive a penny on the first day, and it doubles every day for 31 days.
At first glance, many people might instinctively choose the $1 million, thinking it’s the larger amount. However, if you do the math, the power of compounding becomes evident.
On day 1, you have $0.01. On day 2, you have $0.02. On day 3, you have $0.04. On day 4, you have $0.08, and so on.
By day 31, the compounded amount surpasses the $1 million lump sum. In fact, on the 31st day alone, you would receive over $10 million, making the total amount accumulated from the doubling penny well over $20 million.
If you do a little something every day and increase in small increments over time you’ll find that you can reach and even surpass any goal. This is especially true when you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable goal.
You may have heard the joke, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” It’s why Steve Scott calls tiny habits designed to conquer a huge task, elephant habits.
Suppose you want to clear out your pantry to exchange a lot of old, unhealthy food with healthier options. The problem is, you haven’t cleaned out your pantry in years and you can’t bear to think of where to start.
You could create an elephant habit to add to your morning habit stack. You will spend two minutes on the pantry every morning, after that glass of water. In two minutes you could get rid of three or four expired, or unappealing items or start organizing a corner of a shelf. Before you know it, your pantry is done and you haven’t felt a thing!
Better still, you still have that two-minute habit to make sure you have all that you need for the rest of the week, or to cut up some fruit or vegetables for a healthy snack. You’ve decluttered your kitchen (and your brain) and started some healthy eating habits. That’s a big deal, especially when you start to see the results on your waistline.
The key to making habit stacking work for you in a big way is to make sure you are choosing a habit that supports a big life goal.
Life goals can include:
• Better health
• Career advancement
• Organization and de-cluttering
• Financial goals
And of course, the habit must be tiny, something you can do in less than five minutes. You can even choose a micro habit from each of these categories and create a habit stack tied to the same anchor habit.
For example, let’s say your anchor habit is going to the bathroom right after you wake up. As soon as you are done, you could do a 30-second plank exercise (better health), make a list of the three most important things you want to accomplish at work (career advancement) during the day, find three things to throw away or put away (organization and decluttering) and then take ten slow, deep breaths (stress-reduction).
That entire stack should take about five minutes. Every day you go through the stack you have moved one step closer to four of your big goals.
If your stack seems too trivial to make a difference, then it is perfect! It means that each behavior will be easy to slip into your existing routine. But in a matter of weeks, the compounding effect from inserting these mini habits into your day, every day, will create noticeable change in your life. That plank will feel easy and you will probably do it longer because you have gotten stronger.
You’ll find you’ve accomplished more at work because you have focused on the most important tasks. Your home will be less cluttered and feel easier to manage. And you may find yourself using those deep breaths for stress reduction during the day because they felt so good in the morning.
But don’t take our word for it.
Try habit stacking with a single habit just to see what happens.
1. Identify an anchor habit – something you do everyday.
2. Pick a long-term goal and decide on one tiny habit that connects to that goal.
3. Every day, perform your tiny habit after your anchor habit.
4. Do this for 2-3 weeks and see if you notice a difference.