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Habit Stacking for the Win

Updated: Apr 3, 2021

I recently came across the concept of “habit stacking” which sounds like a game changer for those looking to develop new, healthy life habits. The term “habit stacking” was initially coined by The Wall Street Journal’s S.J. Scott in his 2014 book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less. [1] Essentially, what happens when one “habit stacks” is, a new behavior is attached to a pre-existing habit to allow for easier integration into everyday life.

Habit Stacking Your Oral Hygiene

One of the easiest ways to start habit stacking is by optimizing your oral hygiene. I’m going to assume we all have a well-integrated habit of brushing our teeth at least twice daily. Since it’s a habit that we’ve done tens-of-thousands of times before, our brain kicks into autopilot with our basal ganglia acting as the primary driver. Since there isn’t a whole lot of high-level thought required, our energy-hogging cerebral cortex isn’t recruited, conserving energy for those tasks needing deeper levels of concentration and cognitive processing.

Since an ideal oral hygiene routine includes 4 steps, it is the perfect routine to habit stack.

  • Step 1: Flossing

  • Step 2: Using a tongue scraper

  • Step 3: Brushing our teeth

  • Step 4: Rinsing with mouthwash

Starting all these habits at once would be akin to trying to overhaul your entire lifestyle as your New Year's resolution. It likely isn't possible to make so many changes to your routine at the same time.

For instance, trying to start going to the gym, converting to a vegan, cutting out all processed foods, and practicing meditation all at once will set you up for failure. Implementing too many habits simultaneously is a recipe for disaster and will leave you feeling defeated as you convert back to your old routine. It’s best to approach lifestyle changes slowly, focusing on implementing one good habit at a time to make sure it is well-integrated before moving onto the next.

Going back to oral hygiene, start by coupling flossing with your brushing routine. Do this for 1-2 months, then add on tongue scraping. Once those habits are integrated, start using mouthwash. Another good tip is to keep all these items in the same location so they serve as visual cues reminding you to perform the behaviors together. After a few months, your routine will go on autopilot as your basal ganglia takes over. This means you have more energy to start habit stacking in other areas of your life.

Where else can we Habit Stack?

1) At the Gym:

If you already have a habit of going to the gym regularly, this is a great area where you can start habit stacking to make sure you are getting the most out of your exercise routine. If you are accustomed to showing up and simply lifting weights, make sure you are incorporating stretching, cardio, and core strengthening into your routine as well. Start by adding dynamic stretching before your workout and static stretching afterwards. Once stretching is well-integrated after several weeks, move on to adding cardio, then core strengthening, until what you have developed is a comprehensive exercise routine consisting of 3-4 positive habits.

2) Morning Routine:

Take a habit that you already have from your morning routine, like drinking 12 oz of water, and stack on 10 minutes of meditation. Then add 5 minutes of planning out your day, followed by listing 3 things you are grateful for, etc.

A fantastic morning routine, and phenomenal opportunity for habit stacking, is outlined in a book by Hal Elrod called Miracle Morning: The not-so-obvious secret guaranteed to transform your life-before 8AM, which follows the pneumonic, "SAVERS:" [2]

  • Silence

  • Affirmations

  • Visualization

  • Exercise

  • Reading

  • Scribing

These are 6 habits that you can start incorporating into your morning routine in a progressive fashion by stacking one on top of the next..

3) Weekly Finance Review:

If you already have a habit of doing laundry on Saturday morning, stack on a finance review with your significant other. One folds clothes, while the other logs into Mint in order to track your spending for the week. [3] Have a discussion about any charges that may be incorrect or areas where you could have cut down on your spending. Login to Personal Capital to track your net worth and make sure you are hitting your financial goals. [4] Talk about new side hustles or ways to increase your earnings, etc. These are all positive habits that can easily be integrated together by habit stacking.

The process of latching new habits onto pre-existing ones is an effective strategy for creating lifelong habits that will serve you well for years to come. In the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

How about you? Where have you incorporated habit stacking into your life?


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