arrows pointing to old and new habits

Habit Stacking Your Way to Better Health

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It takes, on average, 66 days to form a new habit according to a study cited by Author and productivity expert James Clear. That’s a little over two months, which is significantly longer than the commonly-touted 21 days that gets tossed around.

I think it’s safe to say that all of us would enjoy adding one or two more positive habits to our daily routine. How many times have you found yourself saying something like “I’m trying to drink more water” or “I’m working on adding more exercise to my routine”?

Now, what if I told you there was a way to cut the time it takes to form a habit drastically and make developing new habits more straightforward and intuitive? Enter, habit stacking.

Habit stacking

James Clear’s book Atomic Habits* is the first place I heard about an idea called habit stacking. Habit stacking is essentially the process of pairing a new habit with an existing one to create a stack of practices that are done sequentially or at the same time.  The thought behind habit stacking is that by adding a new habit to something you’re already doing, you’re far more likely to keep that habit around for the long term.

The key to habit stacking is beginning with a well-established habit that you do every day.  Something like brushing your teeth, getting out of bed, or taking a shower are all great examples of existing practices that are ripe for the stacking.

Creating habit stacks

Before I share some of my habit stacks, let’s take a look at the best way to design a good stack.

Come up with a list of the established habits you perform every day

These should be things that you do every day, no matter the season or if you happen to be home or traveling.  This list will be a lot shorter than you think once you narrow it down and remove duplicates. Here’s what my list looks like:

  • Wake up
  • Get out of bed
  • Drink water
  • Drink coffee
  • Gratitude practice
  • Use the restroom
  • Shower
  • Brush teeth
  • Wash Face
  • Eat Food
  • Get in bed
  • Read a book
  • Go to sleep

Set a goal you would like to achieve

Set a goal, or several, based on positive changes you’re looking to make in your life. Examples of goals could be losing weight, eating healthier, sleeping better, reading more, writing, learning more, etc. The key is to set goals and introduce habits that you genuinely want in your life.  Otherwise, they’re not going to stick no matter what you do.

Outline potential new habits

Once you have your goals, think about and write down potential new habits you can introduce. If you have the goal of losing weight, you might consider adding drinking water, eating healthy food, or doing a few reps of an exercise. If you have the goal of learning more, you may consider adding reading one blog post or article, listening to a quick, informative podcast, or playing brain games. You get the gist.

Logically pair your new habit with an established one

Now that you have your list of existing habits, your goals, and some new habits to introduce, it’s time to pair them together. It will be best to find a logical, related practice when creating your new pair. For example, if your goal is weight loss and the habit you’re introducing is to drink more water, you could stack the habit of drinking a glass of water with the existing pattern of getting out of bed. I wouldn’t recommend that you pair drinking water with the current practices of using the restroom or taking a shower.

Perform your new habit stack every day for one week

We know it takes over two months to form a new habit. But you only need one week to determine if the habit is something you feel you want to do long-term. If you’re happy with the results, continue with the practice.  If you don’t enjoy the newly added habit, drop it, or replace it.

For example, if you decided to add doing push-ups during commercial breaks but your elbow hurts every time you do it, maybe it’s time to look for a different exercise or a different way to pair exercise with watching tv.

Repeat this for as many new stacks as you’re wanting to create. There is no limit to how many good habits you can have!

Keep your stacks realistic

The habit stack exists to help make small, incremental changes.  We don’t want to go crazy creating a stack that starts with brushing your teeth, then ten jumping jacks, followed by ten push-ups, flossing, reading an informative article from the internet, saying five things you’re grateful for, planning your to-do list, etc. And when all is said and done, you’ve spent 30 minutes in the bathroom just to brush your teeth.  Cap your habit stacks at 3-4 things. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to complete the whole routine.

My habit stacks

Below are some of the stacks of habits that I have created over the years. After writing this post, I am feeling encouraged to add a few more!

  • Fitness in the bathroom:  This one is kind of silly, but after I use the restroom, I do ten air squats.  I feel less weird about it when I’m at home. But if I’m in public, I do my squats in the stall before I wash my hands.  Even if you only use the restroom five times a day (I am admittedly closer to 10-12), it’s going to be 50 more squats per day, which is significant.  It also acts as a bit of a pick me up and gets your blood moving. This is especially nice if you sit or stand most of the day!
  • Wall sits and dental hygiene:  I previously stacked flossing and using a mouthwash with my brushing habit. But I’ve recently added a 30-second wall sit hold while I’m swishing with the mouthwash.  One of my favorite things about habit stacking is that you can so easily accomplish more if you double up during a single timeframe. Why only use mouthwash when you can also give your thighs a decent burn?
  • Reading and oil pulling:  I do oil pulling with coconut oil for 20 minutes each day. (I’ll have an upcoming post on this for those who aren’t familiar.) Since I can’t talk while oil pulling, reading acts as a nice silent activity to help me pass the time while still feeling a little productive.
  • Getting out of bed and hydrating:  I fill my tumbler up at night and keep it next to my bed so that it’s the first thing I grab in the morning. I cover this and other great ideas for the morning in my post, Designing a Stress-Free Morning Routine.

Do you have ideas for creating a new habit stack in your life?  Let me know in the comments!

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