Is it possible to build new habits by taking advantage of old ones?
When you’re trying to make a change, whether it’s wanting to improve your work performance, make healthier choices, or to save more money, one of the challenges is ensuring the changes stick. It’s hard. Behaviour change requires discipline and, when life is busy, it’s all too easy to find excuses that prevent you from making new routines and lifestyle choices a priority.
But you do have something at your disposal that can help – your current daily habits. Yes, one of the most efficient ways to build new behaviours is to identify an existing habit that you can ‘stack’ a new behaviour on top of.
Habit stacking is a form of implementation intention and, according to life coach and therapist Claire Elmes, it’s one of the most effective techniques you can use for successfully introducing new habits.
“The idea is to use an already existing habit to help organise your new habits sensibly and logically,” says Claire. “The existing behaviour acts as a ‘trigger’, so you are teaching your brain that, when you have completed your existing habit, you then do your new one.”
How does habit stacking work?
The habit stacking formula is simple: ‘After/before [current habit], I will [new habit].’
It could be:
- Before I brush my teeth each morning, I will meditate for two minutes.
- After I sit down to eat dinner, I will think of one positive thing that happened today.
- Before I turn the light off at night, I will kiss my partner.
Habit stacking works because your current habits are well-ingrained.“Tagging new habits onto ones that we do unconsciously allows the process to feel manageable and achievable, allowing more chances for success,” says Claire.
Once you get the hang of it, you can start to create larger stacks by linking more and more habits together. You can even create general habit stacks to guide you whenever the situation is appropriate. For example:
- If I see a set of stairs, I will take them instead of using the lift/escalator.
- When I go to a party, I will introduce myself to someone I don’t know.
- If I buy a new item of clothing, I will donate one to charity.
Tips for success with habit stacking
1. Look at the bigger picture
Where and when you choose to place a habit into your routine is important. You need to think about the best window of opportunity for when you’re most likely to be successful.
“If you’re looking to include 10 minutes of yoga in your day, it would be helpful to consider where this will naturally fit into your routine,” advises Claire.
“It might be as soon as you wake up, after getting dressed, when you’re having a cup of tea/coffee, or when you’re fully ready. You might decide that after you make your coffee, you’ll do your 10 minutes of yoga while it’s cooling down, and then you can drink your coffee.”
2. Be specific with your cue
Goals like ‘read more’ or ‘eat healthier’ are worthy causes, but the intention isn’t specific enough – there’s no instruction on how and when to act. The key to success is avoiding this ambiguity and having a clear trigger. It could be that you leave a book underneath the TV remote, so when you sit down for an evening you can easily pick up a good read instead of streaming a show.
Don’t underestimate the power of a cue – habit stacking works best when the cue is definitive and immediately actionable.
3. Consider the frequency
The cue should also have the same frequency as your new habit. So, if you want to develop a daily habit but you stack it with a habit that happens only once or twice a week, you’re not setting yourself up for success.
And don’t ask yourself to take on a new habit when you’re likely to be occupied with something else. For example, if you’re thinking of adding something into your morning routine, but your mornings are already chaotic, then that may be the wrong place and time.
But remember, this is an ongoing effort to create healthy lifestyle changes – so go easy on yourself if you slip up. Changing a behaviour is hard, no matter how good your intentions are. Habit stacking can allow you to create a set of simple rules that guide your future behaviour, providing you with a game plan for which action should come next. But, ultimately, your desire for change must be strong enough to motivate you to stick with your new stack, until the behaviour becomes ingrained. The simple fact that you’re trying is a step in the right direction though, and if you keep in mind why you want to make these changes, eventually it will all stack up. Good luck!
When developing new habits, Claire says it's important to consider why we need them in the first place. "We have more than 6,000 thoughts per day and our brain has to delete, distort, and generalise these to enable us to make sense of our day.
"We need automatic 'schemas' – habits, 'how to' scripts – to enable us to place many of these thoughts on autopilot. For example, you probably put your clothes on in the same order each day without even thinking about it. Habits stop us from having to think about every single thing we need to do".
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