Is Habit Stacking the Key to Making Changes That Actually Last?

Building positive, lasting habits ain't easy. But there is hope with a new self development technique being touted as a possible cure. We speak to some experts on how habit stacking works.

woman habit stacking

Everyone has a different part of habit building that feels the hardest to them. For some, it’s figuring out the best habit to build. For others, it’s understanding how to make a habit stick in the first place.

Recently, habit stacking — the act of pairing a new habit together with an established habit — has grown in popularity as a way to implement new habits more effectively. And, maybe – just as importantly – as a technique for circumnavigating the negative self-talk that says, “You can’t do that.”

“Self-doubt is often connected to our fears,” explains Michelle Goodloe, a licenced clinical social worker, author, and well-being strategist. “If you’re noticing some self-doubt when you’re trying something new, remember to set realistic expectations for yourself and think of yourself as a student through the process of starting a new habit.”

Building positive associations with your new habits can help you make them stick, especially in the long term. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that most people benefit from pairing their habits with other habits and with immediate gratification, even if the habit they’re trying to implement is rooted in a longer-term lifestyle change.

How does habit building work?

Ok, so before we dive into habit stacking, it’s important to break down some definitions.

“A habit is a behaviour that has been learnt and reinforced over time and eventually becomes automatic or subconscious,” explains Dr. Sarah Oreck, MD MS, psychiatrist, and psychotherapist. “Habit stacking is a technique that can be used to help us form new habits by linking a new habit with an existing habit that we already do regularly.”

Your first step ahead of habit stacking is making sure the habit you want to build checks off this list, according to Dr. Oreck: 

  • It’s a small and manageable habit to start.
  • It adds meaning to your life in both the short and long term (this will make it easier for it to stick).
  • You’re leaving room for slip-ups – habit-building is full of ups and downs.

Goodloe echoes Dr. Oreck’s sentiment around choosing a habit that is meaningful and relevant to your life so that it has a higher chance of sticking.

“Some common mistakes [when habit building] are jumping into a new habit without intention or purpose, starting too big, and only following trends around a new habit without seeing if it really aligns with your needs,” explains Goodloe.

Habit stacking can be especially useful because it encourages you to notice where you are slotting in your new habit and if it makes sense in relation to your current habits or lifestyle. 

woman habit stacking

How to habit stack

Recently popularised by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention which can be used to design an obvious cue for nearly any habit.

The goal isn’t to say, “I want to be a morning person,” but instead to pair waking up earlier with something you would naturally do every morning — like taking a shower, making coffee, or going for a walk. Anytime you pair a new (desired) habit with an old (loved) habit, you are habit-stacking.

“Stacking new habits onto existing ones helps build a new skill without necessarily starting from scratch, explains Goodloe. “It makes committing to new habits less daunting and increases our success rate.”

Habit stacking also helps you create a cushion that reinforces consistency and allows for mistakes. The European Journal of Social Psychology published a study that determined that you can still succeed at building a habit even if you miss a day or two because habits aren’t rooted in perfection, they’re rooted in consistency and realistically folding them into your everyday life.

3 habit stacking tips to remember

Be specific

“A big error [when habit building] is not being specific enough,” explains Dr. Oreck. “When you're trying to form a new habit, it's important to be specific about what you want to achieve.” For instance, if your goal is to exercise more or live a healthier, more movement-focused life, build a habit of walking to get your coffee instead of driving. Your habit is then rooted in a specific action instead of a feeling.

Decide on a cue

James Clear writes that the key to habit stacking effectively is giving yourself a clear green light that will help you set your new habit in motion. A study in American Psychologist doubled down on the same finding. Here’s how you can implement it in the ‘walking to get coffee’ example —  your cue could be putting on your sneakers or picking up your headphones for your morning walk.

Tell your friends

You can add “build a support system” as a way to get your habit stacking to stick too. According to a study published in the American Psychological Association, individuals are motivated by the social groups around them to follow through on their goals or habits. Similar to the positive reinforcement study mentioned above, texting your group chat a picture of the morning coffee you picked up can help reinforce positive behaviour and keep you accountable.

Final thoughts

No matter what habit you’re working on picking up, remember to be realistic, integrate it into your existing habits, and set yourself up to win by outlining your cues specifically. As Goodloe adds:

“When starting something new, make it easy for yourself. It is helpful and reassuring to start something small and scalable to lay the foundation and encourage yourself. Sometimes when we start too big, we can easily feel defeated and tap out too soon.”

Words: Vivian Nunez

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