New You Week 4: Habit Stacking

Welcome to Week 4! If you’ve been following along, then you’ll know our journey so far looks like this:

  1. How to Create a New You in 2021
  2. Pick One Thing
  3. Start Small

At this point, it’s not unusual for a few speed bumps to have popped up on the road to better habits. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ve hit something that slowed your progress or even derailed you altogether.

Forget about it. Really. Every day is a new day. If you fell down yesterday, just pick yourself up and start fresh today. That’s the beautiful thing about personal change: you get to decide the rules. And if you’re the boss, why not be more forgiving? If you stumble, start anew.

But WHY, you ask, does it have to be soooo hard?

Excellent question. And the answer reveals a useful tool for your habit-building toolbox.

Getting “Triggered”

If you’ve read Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit (summary), then you’ll know that habits are reinforcing loops that have triggers. A stressful event, for example, might trigger a habitual response, like smoking, or eating something sweet.

One of the challenges with getting your new habit to stick is that it’s not linked to any triggers yet. If you’re trying to drink more water, for example, you might find you simply…forget! You might even have a bottle full of water on your desk but realize at the end of the day that you’ve hardly touched it. 

For all your good intentions, without someone or something to prod you to actually do the habit, it simply falls by the wayside. 

Habit Stacking

One way to combat this is with habit stacking. Using this technique, you “piggyback” your fresh and very fragile new habit on top of something else that has a more established routine.

Let’s take a closer look at that “drink more water” habit. What if we tried to piggyback your desired action (drinking water) with something specific that you already do? 

Here’s how that can work.

If you’re like most people, you start your day with a cup of coffee or tea. You stumble bleary-eyed into the kitchen, turn on the coffee maker, and wait patiently for that first cup. Most people do some variation of this every single morning of their adult life

Now: what if you put a glass of water beside the coffee maker?

That’s it. 

When you stumble out to the kitchen, what’s the first thing you see? The glass. You hit the button on the coffee maker, drink your glass of water, and there, just like that, you’re already ahead of the game. You’ve won the day!

That’s just one glass of water. But what if you put a glass next to the sink in the bathroom? What would happen then? 

What if you put an empty glass next to every tap in your house, and make a point of drinking a glass of water each time you enter that room? It might not work every time, but sometimes that little reminder attached to another habit is all you need.

What Existing Habits Can You Use?

To make habit-stacking work, you need to look for your existing patterns. What do you do every day no matter what? What do you do multiple times a day, every day? 

Once you’ve identified a few, look for ways to stack a new habit:

  • Take a short walk after dropping your kids at the bus stop
  • Do five pushups each time you leave the bathroom
  • Think of something you’re grateful for each time you brush your teeth
  • Stretch for five minutes each time you put your pyjamas on

How can you attach the habit you want to the habits you have?

Recommended reading: Atomic Habits by James Clear