Habit Stacking: How To Develop Habits The Easy Way

William Clement Stone once observed that big doors swing on little hinges.

It’s a quote that describes much of what happens in life. The biggest outcomes do not happen out of the blue, are rather the product of multiple small efforts. We may not pay much attention to the small things that we do daily but each action is silently at work and affecting us in the future.

It’s hence important to develop good habits. Our minds have a limited cognitive load and cannot manually process every single action we take. A lot of what happens hence becomes automated by the body through repetitions. Each repeated movement strengthens the neurons in our brain, which in turn makes future similar behaviours easier.

As James Clear noted: small habits don’t add up, they compound. You don’t need to be twice as good to get twice the results. You just need to be slightly better.

This applies towards building habits as well. Habit formation doesn’t have to be difficult and repeated each time you want to develop a new habit. All you need to do is make slight adjustments.

Habit Stacking

If you were to build a structure, you would do your best to avoid building it from scratch. It’s far easier and smarter if you were to build it on an already solid foundation.

That’s what S.J Scott proposes in Habit Stacking.  As he writes:

“The core idea behind the mini-habits concept is that you can build a major habit by thinking small enough to get started. Most people don’t need motivation to do one pushup, so it’s easy to get started. And once you get going, you’ll find it’s easy to keep at it.”

The idea of a small win is not new. Scott is referencing the ‘One Pushup Challenge’ which Stephen Guise suggested in Mini HabitsGuise had attempted to squeeze as much as possible into his workout but burned out physically and mentally. Instead of accomplishing more, he exercised less as he skipped workouts completely.

He flipped the script and attempted to do just one push-up instead. Except that he never stopped at one, but went on to do more repetitions and exercises. He had a pretty good workout even though he started with the intention of doing only one push-up.

Stanford professor B.J. Fogg calls this a tiny habit. The idea is that you plan to do something so ridiculously small that there would be no reason you won’t do it. It would take more mental energy to make excuses and ward off the guilty for not taking the single action than it would to actually do it. But nobody does just one push-up: the thought is that we might as well do more since we’ve already started.

Apply that idea on a macro level, and you get habit stacking. It is named as such because you can develop your habit by “stacking” it on top of a habit you’ve already established. Since the current habit is already wired into your brain, the behaviour is acquired quicker than normal.

Habit Stacking In Action

You can acquire a new behaviour through habit stacking by sequencing your new desired behaviour after an already established habit. Some examples include:

  • After using the washroom, I will drink a glass of water.
  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss.
  • After I brew a cup of coffee, I will do 10 push-ups.

To build your own habit, all you have to do is fill in the blanks:

After [current habit], I will do [desired behaviour]

Habit stacking is so effective because it’s logical and easy to follow. Think of it as following a checklist: all you do is follow through the motions and make sure you hit every point along the way. The net result is that you build a greater overall routine that helps you become more productive.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at what you already do.

Some of us already batch our activities together in a natural flow that makes things easy for us. Brushing your teeth, flossing, and then shaving might be individual habits that you would weave together into an overall routine. You never stop to think for a moment, but you’ve already accomplished three essential activities that pay off in the long run.

The Takeaway

There’s no complex formula that you need to adhere to if you want to manifest and sustain behaviour change. If you’re deciding between what habits to develop, you’ll want to start with keystone habits.

All you need to do then is build on what you already have, and begin slowly.