A Quick Way to Make Habits Stick

Habit stacking is a quick way to build good habits, which have a lasting, massive impact in your life. Habits are automatic behaviors that reduce decision fatigue, make time your ally, and save your energy for the hardest things.

Do you have trouble remembering to do a new habit?
Are you setting the right conditions to form the habit?
Do you lose motivation when you don’t get immediate results?

This is Episode 49. A Quick Way to Make Habits Stick

Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.

Good habits have a lasting, massive impact in your life. These automatic behaviors reduce decision fatigue, make time your ally, and save your energy for the hardest things.

Tiny habits and doable steps. You really don’t need to take visible, dramatic moves to make big changes. You just need to be consistent in your everyday actions.

As James Clear writes in his book, Atomic Habits, our daily habits make up our days, and how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

Professor BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, says no behavior occurs without a prompt. Even when your motivation and ability are high, there’s no action without a prompt.

In episode 48, I talked about how habits form and why it’s so hard to build good habits. Now I’ll cover a quick way to make habits stick.

It’s Habit Stacking.

Author S.J. Scott coined the term. In his book, Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes that Take 5 Minutes or Less,” he discussed how you can add small changes to make massive changes in your life.

Professor Fogg says Habit Stacking is when you use an existing routine (anchor) to create a new habit (tiny behavior). Behaviors happen in sequence, one leading to another. You’re creating a chain of habits to make the change effortless.

The Habit Stacking formula is:
After I brush my teeth, I will read 5 pages from a new book.
After I load the dishwasher, I will practice playing a song on the piano for 10 minutes.
After I shut down my computer, I will review my day.

You identify an existing habit and pair it with a new habit.

Habit Stacking fits with Professor Fogg’s ABC method for designing behavior and building habits. ABC stands for Anchor, Behavior, Celebration.

1. The Anchor Moment is to pick an existing routine or event to do the new tiny behavior and to remind you of it.
2. The New Tiny Behavior is to start out with an easy version of the new habit you want to create and practice it to get to the next level.
3. Instant Celebration is to celebrate the moment you remember to do the new habit, while you’re doing the new habit, and immediately after you do the new habit.

Why is Habit Stacking a quick way to build new habits?

You often pick what to do next based on what you just finished doing. You use the connectedness of behavior to trigger the next behavior.

Habit Stacking applies the four rules of Atomic Habits formation. And these four rules are based on the four stages of habit formation.

Rule 1: Make the cue obvious
You need to be aware of cues that create the behavior.

You could design or tweak the environment so it prompts the new habit. You stock only bottles of water

instead of bottles of juice and soda in your fridge if you want to drink more water.
You could do Implementation Intention, where you assign a time and place for when you will do the next behavior. You know the context and circumstances to implement the habit. The formula is:

“When X occurs, I will do Y” or “At X time, I will do Y.”
At 1 pm, I will go for a walk around the block for 10 minutes.

Habit Stacking is a quicker way to make the cue obvious. It’s a special form of implementation intention. You allow the reward of the existing habit to become the new cue for the new behavior. Rather than pair your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit.

“After I do X, I will do Y.”

The cue is obvious because you attached the new habit to a fully formed habit. Habit 1 triggers habit 2 and habit 2 triggers habit 3 and so on.

After I pour my morning tea, I will meditate for 2 minutes.
After I meditate for 2 minutes, I will review my plan for the day.
After I review my daily plan, I will start my first task.

Rule 2: Make the craving attractive

For the craving to trigger action, the reward of taking the action must be attractive. You want or like the reward because it creates neurochemicals, like dopamine.

You could surround yourself with friends, family and social groups who support you in your new habits. Being part of a club or group that has a shared purpose will keep you on track.

Habit Stacking is a quicker way to make the craving attractive. Pair the action you need to do with another action you want to do. I will enjoy a cup of my favorite tea after I do 1 hour of deep work. I will listen to my favorite podcast after I do 2 hours of deep work.

This is Temptation Bunding. You’re prompted to do the hard task by linking it with an easy, fun task.
The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is:

After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

Rule 3: Make the response easy
Habits are hard to sustain when they require willpower, discipline, effort and ability. To stay on track, you make the behavior easier to do.

You reduce the friction between you and the habit. If you want to eat at least 1 serving of fruit per day, you place a bowl of apples on your kitchen table, instead of keep it in the fridge.

You could follow the 2-minute rule, where you break down the new behavior into 2-minute increments. With each step, you make progress toward the desired goal, and cast a vote for your desired identity.

If you want to run for 20 minutes every day, you lay out your running shoes, put them on, leave the house, and get on the running path. Even if you get to put on only your shoes, it’s a small win. But chances are, once you take the first step, you will build momentum to keep going.

There’s also the Starter Step and Scaling Back.

The Starter step is one small, first step toward the desired behavior. What is an easy action you can take at the start to form a new habit? If you want to do yoga for 1 hour on Thursday evenings, you start by rolling out the mat.

Scaling back is to take the behavior you want and shrink it. You do a tinier, easier version of the habit you want to build. An hour of yoga every Thursday is scaled back to one Sun Salutation. Even when you’re not feeling motivated or other things take priority, you can do the bare minimum requirement for the habit.

Habit Stacking is a quicker way to make the response easy. When you layer a new habit on top of a fully formed habit, you create a chain of habits, which together make a routine. There’s less friction to do the action steps. The current habit fuels the desired habit. The moment the old habit ends, you switch to the new habit. And you don’t have to default to the bare minimum or resort to just the easiest step.

You can create a whole morning routine, evening routine, start-up routine, or shut-down routine by linking an existing habit with a desired habit.

Do you want to start reading books in the morning? You could slide it in to your current routine. After I wake up in the morning, I will drink water. Then I will open the blinds and soak in sunlight. Then I will stretch for 5 minutes. Then I will sit with my cup of coffee and read a book for 10 minutes. Habit stacking makes it easier to add the new behavior.

Rule 4: Make the reward satisfying
We are more likely to repeat a behavior when there is immediate reinforcement. We prefer immediate rewards over delayed rewards.

You could enlist a trusted friend or accountability partner to support you in your habit. At the start of your day, you could text a friend to let them know what you plan to do. And if you do the thing, you get to tell the friend what you accomplished.

You could set immediate rewards for a habit with long-term rewards. Working out at the gym does not bring noticeable results right away. So each time you go to the gym, you add $10 in a jar for something you really want to buy.

Habit Stacking is a quicker way to make the reward satisfying. You could stack on a fun new habit to a challenging habit. After you spend two hours on focused work, you could do a happy dance, take a walk around the block, do a set of jumping jacks, or listen to your favorite album.

The easy, immediately satisfying habit is the reward for doing the hard habit that doesn’t bring immediate rewards. You reinforce the hard task by linking it to a fun activity.

Here are 4 Quick Tips for Habit Stacking

1) Make a list of all your daily habits or fully formed habits. This will help you decide when and where to stack the new behavior. Examples are waking up, brushing your teeth, eating lunch, and turning off the lights before bedtime.

2) Pick the right trigger. You not only need to know what the new action is and how you will do it. You also need to pick the right time, location, place, context and circumstances. The right cue helps you to set realistic expectations. You won’t be able to do 15 minutes of meditation after your morning tea, if you have young kids waking up around that time and wanting your attention.

3) Choose a highly specific cue for an immediately actionable habit. After I finish brushing my teeth, I will read a [specific] book for [a specific number] of minutes.

4) Match the frequency of your cue with the desired frequency of the new habit. If you want to do a new habit three times a day, pick an anchor that happens three times a day. If you want to do a habit once a day, pick an anchor that occurs once a day.

5) Experiment and have fun. Habit stacking takes trial and error. When you’re designing a routine, it could take several tries to land on a chain of action steps that really work. You’ll also have to consider the season and circumstances in your life, which may require tweaks and adjustments to your habits.

Habits can get boring. They are automatic behaviors after all. They are not as exciting as goals.
Habits can also be hard to sustain. You’re never done with them because once you are, they’re no longer a habit.

Nonetheless, habits are critical. They make up your system to create your desired life and to reach your goals. They give you immediate rewards, add momentum, and keep you moving in the right direction.

Habits, Routines and Rituals are discussed in the first chapter of my book, The Incrementalist.
To learn more about the Incrementalist productivity system, check out the book at leanpub.com/incrementalist.

For updates, sign up for my enewsletter at dyanwilliams.com.

If you have questions on habit stacking, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at dyan@dyanwilliams.com.

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