How to Create a Habit Stack, Save Time, and Get Things Done
One of my favorite lines in the book Atomic Habits by James Clear is:
You become your habits.
That may not be news to you, but I’m guessing most of us don’t really stop and think about it, or give it the credence it deserves.
We think more in terms of goals, achievements, and outcomes. The focus is on “end points” instead of “the process” to get to them.
The problem with that kind of thinking is that it usually stops at the desire stage. You want to lose weight, get a new job, go back to school, lower your blood pressure, find a new partner, or whatever the case may be, but you don’t have a system in place to get there.
As James Clear points out, the system is the thing that leads to the goal, and the system is the thing that helps you become who you want to be.
So, the obvious thing to focus on is the system, not the goal.
The system in this case are the habits you create that either move you toward your goal, or take you backwards. Habits are very powerful, and you can make use of that power if you consciously choose the habits you want to create and work at them.
The great thing is, once a habit has been embedded in your psyche meaning it’s been automated and occurs without much exertion on your part, then you have in place a regular action that will move you toward your goals or the results you want to achieve. Better yet, you’ve created a process that will keep propelling you forward as long as you simply show up.
One of my favorite techniques for making use of the habit strategy is something called “habit stacking.”
Habit stacking is a conscious and deliberate method of combining several habits together in such a way that once you start the first habit, you run through the entire stack easily without much resistance.
The big problem with creating habits is the resistance that rears its ugly head when you go to perform them.
It follows that if you can figure out how to get around that resistance, you’re more likely to both create and keep your habits, especially the good ones that you need to take you to where you want to go.
It’s usually quite easy to create habits that aren’t so good for you, but offer immediate gratification – like scrolling through social media anytime you get bored and don’t want to something you need to do. The trouble with these habits is that they can exert a lot of power over your daily activities and keep you from accomplishing the things that are important to you.
Good habits often require delaying gratification, but the good thing is that you can actually get immediate gratification from completing them daily once you get the habit in place.
How to Create a Habit Stack
Here’s how habit stacking works. You begin with a regular habit you already have, and it helps if this is a habit that’s easy, likable, and one you enjoy. Then you attach a second habit to it just as it ends. This means that the end of the first habit is a cue to begin the second one.
You can continue and attach as many habits to the stack as you like, as long as you know it will be doable. The two big things to consider are:
- Is the habit something I know how to do and don’t need any new instructions for or information to complete?
- Is there truly a time slot available to tack it on? In other words, is it doable in the time I have allotted?
Here’s an example of my morning habit stack.
When I get up in the morning, I go straight to the kitchen and make coffee. I love coffee, so this is a super easy habit to follow. When the coffee’s made, I take it back to my bedroom and sit up in bed and read the paper and drink my coffee. This is habit number one. I have absolutely no resistance to this habit. I look forward to it.
The second habit is to open my iPad and write 10 things I’m grateful for. I’ve been doing this one for a long time, so it’s easy now. When I started, I chose the easiest means of doing it. I like to type instead of hand write, so I used a computer with a keyboard and set up a regular page for monthly gratitude. That means I already have a document set up for the month and every day I add to that document. When I finish, I read it over. I love this habit because it changes my mood, always for the better. I’m still drinking coffee during this one.
The third habit continues on my iPad. I have a book on Kindle that has inspirational passages. I open it up and it lands where I left off the morning before. I read a passage. Takes a couple of minutes. Now I’m really feeling good! Coffee, gratitude, and inspiration! I close the iPad, silence my phone, turn off the light and go to the next habit in the stack.
Habit number four is meditation. I meditate for 30 to 45 minutes. I leave that time loose depending on how rushed the morning is, but I always meditate 30 minutes at a minimum. At this point my dog, who’s gotten up with me and gone back to sleep for the entire routine, begins to stare at me because he knows the timetable and he’s ready to eat.
The habit stack is over when I get up to feed him, and then another habit stack begins to get ready for work and get out the door.
Here’s what I know. The second habit stack will happen because it has to because I have to go to work. The first habit stack is optional. I could just get up, gulp down some coffee, and get ready for work and go. By deliberately creating the first habit stack, I’ve built in some habits that feed me emotionally, set my mindset before beginning the work day, reduce stress, and contribute to some personal spiritual goals I have.
For years I wanted to meditate regularly, but it was hit and miss because I never established a regular time for it. I tried doing it in the morning, but it wasn’t until I created this habit stack that it has become so regular that I never miss it unless there’s a real conflict which is very rare. If I do miss it, I feel it and make sure I’m right back on it the next day.
I was resistant to doing it for the first two to three weeks after I started, but eventually I just settled into the routine and it now requires no will power or exertion on my part.
Why This Works
Habit stacks work because one habit leads into the next by creating cues. The cues are very specific and if you set it up that way, it’ll work.
With my morning stack the first cue occurs when I get to end of reading the newspaper. I end with several comics I like. As soon as I’ve read the last one which is Blondie, my brain’s already moving my attention to opening my iPad.
The second cue occurs when I’ve reread my last gratitude entry which is number 10 and is always the same one. It’s a daily one I’ve written for years.
The third cue ends when I close the Kindle app on my iPad and turn out the light. Turning out the light sets the scene for meditation.
Meditation ends either when I have reached a certain amount of time or my dog starts making small little sounds or staring me down.
Those cues are what make it all happen and they’re all logged into my neurons paths created just for this habit stack.
The Idea Behind Automation
I’ve mentioned automation a few times now, and that’s because when a habit sets in, and by that I mean when you’ve repeated it consistently enough and long enough to do it without much thought or energy output, it’s automated and requires much less activity neurologically.
That means your brain doesn’t have to work so hard and has more energy available for other pursuits.
Automation reduces something called cognitive load.
Cognitive load is associated with the effort used in learning or processing information by the brain. When processing is automated, cognitive load is low because little effort is needed in processing something that has been repeated many times and already has neuron pathways established.
This just means you have more mental space for other things that are more challenging.
Imagine driving to a restaurant you’ve never been to before. You set your GPS for the new address, or maybe you have directions from someone you know, or you printed them out from Google maps. As you drive to the restaurant, your attention is acutely focused on where you’re going, where you need to make turns, noting landmarks that will let you know you’re on the right path, and maybe the time it’s taking because you’ve been told it’s about a 20-minute trip.
Now compare that to driving to a restaurant you’ve been to 25 times or more. You automatically go the right way without much thought. You might be listening to music or talking to a passenger in your car or thinking about a problem you’re trying resolve at work. You get to the restaurant and can’t recall specifically how you got there. You know you drove, but you weren’t focused on the route because you know it so well. You didn’t have to attend to it. Your brain has it memorized it along with all the actions necessary to make it happen.
During the first trip you couldn’t attend to anything but driving, but during the second trip you almost don’t recollect the driving and your brain was free to attend to all sorts of other things.
That’s what’s meant by reducing cognitive load and freeing up brain space.
A little caveat here: I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t attend to your driving! You should! But, you do get the idea of how cognitive load works in this case.
Habits do that, and the longer and more consistently you’ve engaged in a habit, the less the cognitive load and the more likely you are to follow through because you don’t have to expend much energy.
A second motivation is that creating habits and doing them consistently is a reward in and of itself. It feels really good each time you complete a habit stack. You’ve done something that is aligned with the person you want to be, and often with a goal you want to reach. You feel like you’re evolving, accomplishing, and being a person who’s disciplined and in control of who she is and where she’s going.
A third motivation is that habit stacks are super efficient. When you habit stack regularly, you have much more time. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Steps for Creating Habit Stacks
- Review the daily habits you have already. Some of them might be weekend habits or weekly habits or even monthly habits. You might want to list them so you can refer back to them as you go through this exercise.
- See if there are habit stacks that already exist and decide if they need tweaking. Do you need to change the order to make it more doable, or more likely that you’ll complete it? You might also check to see if there are other habits you want to squeeze into a habit stack that already exists.
- Make a list of new habits you want to create and why. What do these habits add to your life? What do they say about who you are or who you want to become? What are the goals or outcomes you hope will come from these habits?
- Now create a new habit stack from front to back. A habit stack can be only two habits or it can be 4 or 5 habits. Make sure (1) you know how to do everything in the stack, and (2) you have enough real time to complete the stack in the time you’ve allotted.
- Set a day to start the habit stack and do it at least a month. You can tweak as you go if you need to, but try to stick with what you start for a month and then set up for the second month and do it again.
Tips to Make it Work
Get under your resistance radar.
This is important. In order to stick with any new habit, you need to start small enough that you won’t resist it. That means creating mini-habits that just get you on board.
Exercise 5 minutes instead of the hour you think you should put in. Get specific about what you would do in that five minutes. Maybe 10 sit-ups, 5 push-ups, and a stretching exercise. Maybe not even that much. Practice it and see what you can do in 5 minutes and let that be it.
Other examples might be:
Eat one more vegetable serving at dinner.
Meditate 5 minutes.
Write down 3 things you’re grateful for.
You know yourself, so pick and choose what you can do in a short amount of time, and with the least amount of resistance.
Where people go wrong is they start out at the end goal. I’ll exercise an hour a day 6 days a week. That’s a fine goal, and after you’ve been at it a while, you may able to move up to that, but it’s not where to start.
Start so small that you will do it!
Two things to keep in mind are
- Can I easily fit it into the schedule I have already with a minimal adjustment?
- When I think about doing it, is my immediate reaction “No, I don’t want to!”, or does it take so little time and effort that it’s a no brainer? It should not draw emotional resistance.
Choose an easy and attractive habit as your first one.
Remember my morning coffee? It’s easy, and just the thought of it is enticing. That’s the way you want the first habit to be. It should bring you pleasure and create no resistance. That will go a long way in getting you to the second habit in the stack.
Make the transitions easy.
The next thing to consider is how easy the transition will be. You want it to occur with the least amount of effort, so you may want to prepare ahead of time. For example, if your second habit is to exercise for 5 minutes, you should have the necessary clothes and/or gear ready and located in the same location where you are completing the first habit. Maybe you sit on the couch to have your morning coffee, and you need athletic shoes and shorts to exercise. Have them sitting out in close proximity to the couch.
In my morning routine I described, everything takes place in the bedroom. When I get back in bed with my coffee, my iPad is on the bed, the newspaper is on the bed, and the pillow I sit on to meditate is on the bed. That makes it very easy to breeze through the whole routine.
Keep your cues specific.
The cues are important, because they’re the bridge from one habit to the next. Decide ahead of time what your cues are going to be and get very specific about them so there’s no room for vacillating which simply means, there’s no opportunity for you to ask yourself the question, “Do I really want to do that?”
Remember that the key is to make everything automatic. You eat your dinner, and then you get up from the table and take your dishes to the sink and place them inside. That last action – putting your dishes in the sink – is the cue for your next task which is to go directly to the laundry room and put a load of clothes into wash. When you push (or pull) the big button on your washing machine to start the load, that’s the cue to go back out to the kitchen and start loading the dishwasher.
By being very specific about the cues, you’re giving your brain strict instructions that are easy to follow and automate.
What’s the reward?
The last thing to consider is what the reward will be for completing the habit stack. This can be many things, and it’s up to you to decide what it will be because you know what feels like a reward to you.
For my morning reward, I get to start the day feeling calm, energized, clear-minded, and positive. For me, that’s a big reward so the routine is worth the time, effort and energy applied.
A reward may be something more concrete like getting to eat a delicious, healthy breakfast after you exercise.
It might just be a sense of accomplishment for completing something that needed to be done, and you can now cross it off your list. If you’re a list maker, it’s always gratifying to cross things off.
Okay, now you know how to create a habit stack, and what to do to make it work and stick. You probably already have a number of habit stacks that you’ve never really noticed. Take an inventory and see if you do, and then see if you can make them better, or create some new ones.
As always, I’m interested in your comments. Let me know if you try habit stacking, or if you already do it, how you use it and how it works for you.
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I found that I already do this with my tea and exercise but I am going to add the gratitude list to my morning routine!
I love the gratitude list. I’m always surprised at the effect it has on my mood during the day. You wouldn’t think it would be that influential, but it is even if you start out in a grumpy mood. It’s transformative!