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Mastering Habit Stacking: The Ultimate Guide to Building Lasting Healthy Routines

Published on: March 12, 2024

You probably heard before that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. Recently, I saw an article that said it was more like 66 days. In reality though, the time it takes to develop a new habit depends on a few things: what the habit is, how easy or difficult that person finds the habit being, and the commitment of the person itself.

We all know that when pursuing health and wellness, having sustainable habits is vital. That being said, in the midst of busy schedules and competing priorities, keeping up with the consistency that’s needed for your health goals is super challenging! That’s where the concept of habit stacking comes in – a powerful strategy that leverages existing routines to seamlessly integrate new habits. 

As a dietitian and habit coach with expertise in fitness, I’ve seen firsthand how habit stacking can transform lives. In this blog post, I’ll dive into what habit stacking is, why it works, and how you can implement habit stacking to cultivate lasting healthy behaviours.

woman in grey jacket sits on bed uses grey laptop

What is Habit Stacking?

One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking. This idea became popularized by author James Clear in his book “Atomic Habits.” Essentially, it’s about piggybacking a new behaviour on an already established one, capitalizing on the brain’s natural inclination towards patterns and routines.

You might have heard before that the best way to start a new habit is to pair it with a particular time and location (I talked about SMART goals in a previous blog post). And while this can certainly be helpful, the cherry on top to having a new habit stick is to pair it with a current habit you’re already doing. The old habit is then used as an obvious cue.

Why Does Habit Stacking Work?

Habit stacking taps into the psychology of behaviour change. By anchoring a new habit to an existing one, you’re essentially riding the momentum of an established routine. This minimizes the effort needed from your brain to initiate the behaviour, making it more likely to stick over time.

As many as 45% of the things you do each day are done out of habit – without you even giving much thought to it!

Story time: Last year I found myself with a bunch of bottles of body lotion, like most women, not really sure how I accumulated so many but here I was with several bottles and not so surprisingly, skin that wasn’t too hydrated nor smooth since I never used them. So I decided to make it my mission to use body lotion so that by summertime, my skin would be hydrated and ready for shorts! So what did I do? I knew what I needed to do, I had access and the skills to do it, and I made it easy to succeed. I put a lotion bottle next to my face cream, and decided that the opportune time for me to use it would be after my shower. I already have a post-shower face routine, so adding in body lotion wasn’t too difficult. The bottle was there, it was obvious. And honestly, I used it religiously every night after my shower. Within 3 months, there were only 2 days I hadn’t used body lotion! One night at a hotel where I didn’t bring some nor did I realize the room provided a free tiny bottle, and the one night I skipped my nightly shower. That’s it! My new routine was so easy, that it’s only when I was out of routine that I failed. Talk about consistency in 90 days!

Now I know my example is kind of lame – body lotion isn’t as important as eating healthy food, moving your body, drinking water, etc… BUT the point and process can be applied towards anything. 

When it comes to wanting to start a new habit, you need to make it small and easy. Even on days that are super busy, lotionning your legs takes like 20 seconds. No big deal and it’s an easy win. 

So, taking all this into consideration, how can we apply the same habit stacking method to your wellness goals? 

What’s a habit or routine, that you already do almost mindlessly, that you can stack a new habit to, even on your busiest days?

person wearing grey nike sneakers

5 Steps to Habit Stacking

  1. Identify habits you currently have. Start by pinpointing the existing habits that serve as anchor points in your daily routine. These are the activities that you perform consistently and automatically without much thought.
  2. Choose new habits. What behaviours do you want to integrate into your routine? Whether it’s drinking more water, incorporating daily exercise, or practicing mindful eating, be specific about what your goals are
  3. Create stacking prompts. Pair each new habit with a corresponding trigger from your existing routine. For example, if your morning coffee is a non-negotiable, make it a cue to do a quick stretching routine or plan your meals for the day.
  4. Start small so you can build momentum. Focus on one habit at a time and start with manageable increments. As you build confidence and consistency, gradually layer on additional habits to your stack.
  5. Track your progress. Keep a journal or use a habit-tracking app to monitor your consistency and reflect on your successes and challenges. Celebrate your victories and adjust your approach as needed. If you don’t keep track of the progress you’re making, you don’t know how consistent you’re being or if you need to find a new habit that works better for you to reach that same goal.

What are Some Examples of Habit Stacks?

The best formulas for habit stacking is:

Before/During/After old habit, I will new habit

After old habit and before another old habit, I will new habit.

  • After brushing my teeth in the morning, I will do 10 minutes of yoga.
  • While waiting for my morning coffee to brew, I will plan my meals for the day.
  • After dinner, I will take a 15-minute walk around the neighborhood.
  • After I take my evening shower and before I leave my room, I will choose and set out my workout clothes for the morning. 
  • After I get home from work but before I sit down to eat, I will take the dog for a 20-minute walk.
  • When I get home from the grocery store, before putting away my groceries, I will wash and cut fresh fruit and vegetables so they can be ready for quick snacks and meals.
  • While I’m cooking supper, I’ll prepare my lunch for work tomorrow.

The Bottom Line

Habit stacking is a powerful strategy for building and maintaining healthy behaviours. It’s so much easier to adopt new habits when you’re leveraging already existing routines. 

Incorporating habit stacking into your daily routine can pave the way for long-term success in achieving your health and wellness goals. By harnessing the power of small, incremental changes, you can create a ripple effect that transforms your life one habit at a time. So why wait? Start stacking!

Start small, stay consistent, and adjust your approach based on your progress.

Need ideas or want support and accountability in doing habit stacking? Learn more about my 1:1 Voxer coaching or send me a message if you have any questions. 

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Kaitlyn is a registered dietitian and fitness enthusiast dedicated to helping busy women improve their health through sustainable habits.

She’s seen firsthand how difficult it can be to balance a demanding schedule with a healthy lifestyle. That’s why she is passionate about empowering women with the knowledge and skills they need to prioritize their health, even when life gets hectic.

She aims to spread the word about the power of habits and to make healthier living more manageable for busy women who are trying to do all of the things, like herself.

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