13 Steps for Building a Habit Stacking Routine
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The following is an excerpt from my book, Habit Stacking™: 127 Small Changes to Improve Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness. We all know it's not easy to add multiple new habits to your day. But what you might not realize is it's fairly easy to build a single new routine. Read on to learn the 13 steps to turn small, positive habits into a simple-to-complete sequence.
Habit stacking is a strategy you can use to group together small changes into a routine that you follow daily.
The key to consistency is to treat a habit stack like a single action instead of a series of individual tasks. I know this seems like a small thing, but building a habit requires many elements if you want it to stick, like:
- Scheduling time for activity (a block of time).
- Identifying a trigger.
- Planning what you’ll do to complete the action.
- So on and so forth.
My point here?
If you treated each component of a stack as an individual action, then you’d have to create a reminder and track each behavior, which can quickly become overwhelming. However, if you treat the entire routine as just one habit, then it will be easier to remember and complete on a consistent basis.
Habit stacking can feel overwhelming at first. However, once you get started and do it a few times, it’s not as hard as you think.
The key to success here is to start with small expectations, build the muscle memory of completing this routine, and then add more tasks once you’re consistent. In this section, you’ll learn how to do all of this.
What you’re about to discover is a proven thirteen-step process for building a permanent habit stack. It’s a straightforward process that won’t leave you feeling overwhelmed. If you closely follow (and complete) these steps, you’ll discover it’s easy to create lasting change in your life.
Let’s get to it.
Start with a Five-Minute Block
The simplest way to stick with a new habit is to make it “stupidly simple” to complete, which is a valuable lesson that I learned from Mini Habits by Stephen Guise.
As an example, if you want to write every day, then you create a goal of writing just one paragraph per day. Sure, you can do more than that, but as long as you’ve written this paragraph, then you can consider this a complete task for the day. The core idea is to set a simple goal that overcomes inertia. Then usually, once you get started, you’ll do more of the task then you originally planned.
I recommend applying the mini-habits strategy to your stacks. At first, the most important factor is consistency. That’s why you should start with five minutes, picking one or two habits, and then add more as this routine becomes an automatic action.
Don’t think this is enough time to accomplish anything?
Well, if you review the chapter that details my eleven-habit stack, then you’ll discover four habits that took a total five minutes to complete. Not bad for a condensed block of time, right?
Furthermore, there are dozens of habits starting in Part V that only take a minute or two. So, even though a five-minute block might not seem like a lot, you’d be amazed at how much activity can be compressed into this short amount of time.
Focus on Small Wins
Build your routine around habits that don’t require a lot of effort. These are the small wins that will build “emotional momentum” because they’re easy to remember and complete.
When I say small wins, I mean actions that require little willpower, like taking a vitamin, weighing yourself, filling a thirty-two-ounce bottle of water, or reviewing your goals.
Yes, they are incredibly easy tasks, but that’s the point here. You want to get started with these “no-brainer” activities because they will eliminate the likelihood that you’ll skip a day due to a feeling of overwhelm or general busyness.
To complete this step, look at the seven goal categories in Part II. Find actions that are easy to complete—like anything under two minutes. Then build your stack around these simple actions.
Focus on these activities for a week or two until this stack is automatic. Only then should you add more habits to this routine.
Pick a Time and Location
Every stack should be anchored to a trigger related to a location, time of day, or combination of both. Here are a few examples that can be used to act as prompts to complete a specific stack.
At home, in the morning: Completing a morning routine as soon as you start your day is a great way to begin your day in an energized state. You can complete a series of habits that have a positive benefit to your life, which will carry over into the important tasks that start your workday.
The small habits could include meditating, reviewing your goals, reciting affirmations, reading a nonfiction book, or drinking a nutritious shake.
At work, in the morning: You just got to the office, so instead of checking your email or social media (like most people do), maximize the first few hours by creating an environment that allows you to focus on your high-level tasks.
The small habits could include identifying three priority tasks for the day, picking the “next steps” for your top projects, removing distractions, and starting your day by working on the hardest task.
At work, on your lunch break: The middle of the day is a great time to complete a stack. You’ve just worked for a few hours, so you’ll probably feel a decrease in energy. A great way to overcome this negative state is to eat a quick lunch at your desk (before or after the stack) and then complete habits that prepare you for the rest of the day.
The small habits could include meditating, taking a brisk walk, getting in a seven-minute workout, calling an accountability partner, or completing a “deskercise” routine.
At work, at the end of the workday: The last few minutes at work are the perfect time to complete a stack because it’ll set you up for success when you come back the next morning (or after the weekend). You’ve been busy all day, so having an end-of-the-day routine will leave you feeling positive about all you’ve accomplished.
The small habits could include writing in a journal, identifying the important tasks for the next day, or tracking the amount of time you spent on each activity.
At home, early in the evening: You can also squeeze in a stack between when you get home and when you go to bed. In fact, this is the perfect opportunity to work on those small, personal projects that are important but never seem to be urgent enough to demand your attention.
The small habits could include practicing a skill, planning meals for the week, reviewing your expenditures, or organizing a small section of your home.
At the gym (or wherever you exercise): Yes, you can add a stack to an exercise routine. In fact, creating a routine for your workout will help you complete the important exercises in the shortest amount of time.
While exercising isn’t part of a stack, there are many support habits that will help you stick this activity. These include stretching, drinking a healthy smoothie, weighing yourself, recording the metrics from your workout stats, or creating a playlist full of your favorite music or podcasts.
Anchor Your Stack to a Trigger
The word “trigger” has a different meaning for many people. My definition of a trigger is a cue that uses one of your five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste), which acts as a reminder to complete a specific action.
Triggers are important because most people can’t remember a large number of tasks without a reminder. So, a trigger can push you into taking action. For instance, many people use their alarm clocks or cell phones as a trigger to wake them up in the morning.
There are two basic types of triggers. The first are external triggers (like a cell phone alarm, a push notification, or a Post-it note on your refrigerator). External triggers work because they create a Pavlovian response that when the alarm goes off, you complete a specific task.
The second type are internal triggers, which are the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that you relate to an established habit. These are like a scratch that you must itch.
For instance, if you’ve ever compulsively felt the need to “check in” with social media, then this action was the direct result of an internal trigger.
It’s important to understand the difference between these two triggers—not only because it’ll help you build powerful habit stacks, but also because it will help you overcome bad habits that might be limiting your personal growth.
Let me explain.
Habit Triggers (a Negative Example)
As you know, there are many popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Love or hate them, these sites have become a ubiquitous part of our modern culture.
But how did they become so popular?
The companies that created them understand how the human mind works, so they’ve designed their systems to “hook” users into coming back for more.
If you’ve ever used a social site, then you’ve probably noticed it uses alerts for all sorts of behaviors. Whenever someone comments, likes, shares, Tweets, or re-pins something you’ve posted, you get a notification. These cues are visual or auditory cues—or both. A signal goes off, and you respond—like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
These triggers can be addictive because they act as a “reward” for posting content that people appreciate. In fact, at some point, you’ve probably logged into a social site just to see what others think about an update you’ve posted.
The repeated exposure of notifications creates a habit loop that Charles Duhigg discusses in the book The Power of Habit, which breaks down into three actions:
- Cue: The visual or auditory reminder to use the social site.
- Routine: The pattern you follow to check in (e.g., open the app or click to the website).
- Reward: The psychological benefit you receive by using the social site (e.g., someone likes or shares your post).
I feel these triggers can be negative when they create a permanent behavior where you feel a compulsive need to check a site multiple times each day. In fact, without being prompted (like when you feel bored), you’ll often feel an unconscious desire to go to a social site without even knowing why you’re doing it.
This is a classic example of an internal trigger. Through repeated exposure to a social site, you create a permanent habit. Whenever you feel bored or distracted, you can get a quick dopamine rush by checking your favorite social media site. And what usually happens is the “few minutes” you thought you’d be on the site turns into thirty or more minutes of wasted time.
Technology companies use external triggers all the time to create these compulsive internal triggers. It’s how they build “loyal” customers. They know that repeated exposure to an external cue will increase overall usage—especially if the product provides an escape from an otherwise boring day. Eventually, users will access their product whenever they feel unmotivated.
So, if a product provides a positive benefit (e.g., a budgeting app like Mint), then it’s programmed to build good habits. But if a product can be harmful (e.g., an addictive video game like Trivia Crack), then it’s programmed to build bad habits.
For more on this topic, I recommend the book Hooked by Nir Eyal, which goes into a lengthy explanation of how technology is designed to encourage addictive behaviors, and what you can do to recognize these patterns in your life (and hopefully remove them).
Now, if you’ll forgive my minor rant against social media, I do think there is something valuable to be learned by understanding triggers. In fact, you can use this knowledge to build positive habits into your life. So, let’s talk about that next.
Habits Triggers (a Positive Example)
My recommendation is to create a trigger for each habit stacking routine. One example of this is to put dental floss in an obvious location on your bathroom counter, next to your toothbrush. This will act as a visual reminder to floss, either before or after you brush your teeth.
That’s just one example of a trigger. If you want to create triggers for your stacks, then I recommend keeping four things in mind:
1. A trigger should be an existing habit. This is an action you do automatically every day, like showering, brushing your teeth, checking your phone, going to the refrigerator, or sitting down at your desk. This is important because you need to be 100% certain that you won’t miss a reminder.
2. A trigger can be a specific time of day. The reminder for a habit can also happen at a specific time each day, like waking up in the morning, eating lunch, or walking through the door after work. Again, whatever you choose should be an automatic behavior.
3. A trigger should be easy to complete. If an action is challenging (even if it’s something you do daily), then you decrease the effectiveness of the trigger. For instance, even if you exercise regularly, it’s a mistake to use it as a trigger because you might occasionally miss a day.
4. A trigger shouldn’t be a new habit. It takes anywhere from twenty-one to sixty-six days to create a permanent habit. Sometimes it’s even longer for the ones that are really challenging. So, you shouldn’t pick a new habit as a trigger because you’re not 100% certain that it’ll become a consistent action.
Those are just a few rules of thumb for picking a trigger. To simplify it even further, I recommend picking any of the following habits because you probably already do them daily:
- Eating breakfast
- Eating lunch
- Eating dinner
- Brushing your teeth
- Getting into your car before work
- Walking into your house after work
- Arriving (or leaving) your place of employment
- Opening/starting your computer in the morning
- Setting a mobile phone alarm at a specific time
- Keeping a visual reminder in a key location, like your computer, refrigerator, or television
As you can see, there are many types of triggers that can act as reminders for your stack. Really, the easiest way to pick one is to match the trigger to the first habit of the routine. The goal here is to create a trigger that prompts you into action, and then you’ll use the checklist to guide you through the rest of the small actions. So, let’s talk about that next.
Create a Logical Checklist
The checklist is the most important part of a stack. It should include the sequence of the actions, how long it takes to complete each one, and where you’ll do them. I’ll admit it’s a little obsessive to include all this information, but it will remove any guesswork about what you need to do to complete a specific action.
We have already talked about checklists, so I won’t waste time rehashing the same material. Suffice to say, you should put the small actions together in a way that they seamlessly flow into each other without wasted effort.
You’ve probably heard about the law of inertia (also known as Newton’s First Law of Motion). If not, the law states that “an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”
In other words, if your natural tendency is to lounge around before starting the day, then you’ll need an extra “push” to force you into action. People often fail at building habits because it’s easier to stay resting than it is to do something new and potentially unpleasant.
In fact, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about habit development is that you need accountability to stick to a major goal.
It’s not enough to make a personal commitment. The big things in life require a solid action plan and a support network to tap into whenever you encounter an obstacle. This is true in the business world and for your personal development. When you have someone to cheer on your successes (or kick you in the butt when you’re slacking), you’re less likely to give up.
There are a variety of ways to be accountable, like posting your progress on social media accounts, telling the people in your life about your new routine, or even “punishing” yourself for not staying committed to a goal by using an app like Beeminder.
There are two techniques that have personally worked for me when trying to build a new habit:
The first is Coach.me, which is a great tool for maintaining and sticking to new habits. It’s like having a coach in your pocket, both for better and worse. You’ll be held accountable for your habit stacking routine by adding it as a habit and checking in every single day when it’s been completed. Trust me—the simple act of knowing that you have to update people on your progress is motivation enough to stick to a habit stacking routine.
The second is having an accountability partner with whom you share your breakthroughs, challenges, and future plans. This is a great way to get a kick in the butt whenever you feel a wane in motivation, and someone you can confide in whenever you have a challenge that requires a second opinion.
If you’re interested in finding prospective accountability partners, then be sure to check out my Facebook group, HabitsGroup.com, which has over 1,000 members. Every month we create a thread where members can connect with one another and become accountability partners.
Create Small, Enjoyable Rewards
Completing your habit stacking routine is an accomplishment, and it should be rewarded as such.
Giving yourself a reward can be a great motivator to complete a daily routine. This can include anything, like watching your favorite TV show, eating a healthy snack, or even relaxing for a few minutes.
Really, a reward can be anything that you frequently enjoy. My only piece of advice is to avoid any reward that eliminates the benefit of a specific habit. So if you’ve just completed small actions to lose weight, then your reward shouldn’t be a 400-calorie cupcake. It defeats the purpose of the stack, doesn’t it?
If you’d like more ideas, then I encourage you to read one of my blog posts, which covers 155 ways to reward yourself.
Focus on Repetition
Repetition is key for the first few weeks when building a stack. It’s crucial that you stick to the routine—even if you must skip one or two small actions. Consistency is more important than anything else. Repetition builds muscle memory. And when you complete the routine often enough, it’ll become an ingrained part of your day, like brushing your teeth.
All that said, it’s not the end of the world if you miss the occasional day. It happens to the best of us. But you must never, ever miss two days in a row. This will create a slippery slope where it’ll become progressively easier to miss future days. Do this often enough and you’ll probably give up on the routine. This leads us to another piece of advice …
Don't Break the Chain
One of the most interesting habit-related stories I’ve ever heard comes from the popular comedian Jerry Seinfeld. When talking to a budding comedian, Seinfeld gave a simple piece of advice: Set aside time every day to create new material. The key here is to never miss a day, even if you’re not in the mood. (Sounds like familiar advice, right?)
At the start of every year, Seinfeld hangs a one-year calendar on his wall and makes a big red X on the calendar for every day he writes new comedy material. He doesn’t have to write a lot of material every day. What’s important is to do something every single day, without fail. His focus is to never break the chain.
Marking X’s on a calendar encourages you to complete your desired task every single day. The more you look at an unbroken string of red X’s, the more compulsion you’ll feel to get over any initial resistance and force yourself to get started.
The purpose of not breaking the chain is to eliminate your excuses. Sometimes it’s easy to think of creative reasons not to get started with a stack. You’re tired, busy, overwhelmed, sick, hung over, or depressed. All of these can be valid reasons to skip a routine. But if you regularly miss a day, then you’ll make it even easier to skip another day whenever you don’t feel like doing the list.
My advice is simple: Create a doable daily goal that can be achieved no matter what happens, and don’t let yourself be talked out of it. Perhaps you’ll set a small goal where you only complete two or three actions. The important thing is to set a goal that can be achieved even when you have an off day.
Even the most consistent habits will experience the occasional setback or challenge. In fact, when you’ve done something long enough, I guarantee there will be times when you experience an unexpected setback.
For instance, I have been a runner since 1990. Do the math and you’ll see that’s twenty-seven years of distance running. In the almost thirty years of this exercise habit, I have experienced a variety of setbacks, such as boredom, multiple injuries, weird illnesses (scarlet fever and pericarditis were two of my favorites), dog attacks, life-threating car incidents, and life-threatening pedestrian incidents.
As you can imagine, these various incidents have made life interesting when it comes to staying consistent with this one habit. But it’s also taught me the importance of resilience and sticking with something even when you experience a setback.
I’d actually go as far as saying that setbacks are good things. They teach you resiliency and help you become Antifragile, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses in his book by the same name.
The bottom line is you should expect challenges to come up with this routine. When they do, you have one of two choices: give up or find a way to overcome them. Hopefully you’ll look for ways to overcome these obstacles. If so, then I recommend checking out Part XII whenever you encounter an obstacle.
Schedule the Frequency of a Stack
As we’ve discussed before, some stacks only need to be completed on an irregular basis:
At first, you should get started with a small daily habit stack. But as you become comfortable with the strategy, I’d recommend creating a stack for each of the above three times.
Ideally, these stacks should be “check-in habits” that you know are important but are easy to forget, like reviewing your credit card statements, completing safety checks, and planning fun activities. By putting them into a routinely scheduled activity, you’ll make sure these tasks get completed without them weighing on your subconscious as yet another project that you haven’t finished.
Scale Up Your Stack
Think back to the first step of this process: “Start with a five-minute block.” If you can devote only a limited amount of time to a stack, then you won’t get much value from it. That’s why I recommend you eventually build up to a thirty-minute routine, where you complete at least six small habits.
Do this in an incremental manner. In the first week, your routine will last five minutes. The second week will be ten minutes, then up fifteen minutes for week three. Repeat this process until the routine is thirty minutes with a handful of small actions.
Now, this scaling up doesn’t mean you’ll haphazardly add a bunch of small habits. Instead, you should make sure you’re consistently completing the routine and not experiencing resistance to this activity.
Don’t ignore any feelings of stress, boredom, or overwhelm when it comes to your stacks. If you notice that it’s getting progressively harder to get started (e.g., you’re procrastinating), then you should either reduce the number of habits or start asking yourself why you want to skip a day. The more you understand about your lack of motivation, the easier it will be to overcome it.
Build One Routine at a Time
One of the biggest debates around is how long it takes to build a permanent habit. Some people say it’s twenty-one days, and others say it’s a few months. In fact, in a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Phillippa Lally found that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for an action to become a permanent habit, with the average being 66 days.
The lesson here is you shouldn’t try to build more than one habit at a time because each additional new action will make it increasingly difficult to stick with your stacks.
Really, the only time I even consider adding a new stack is when I stop thinking of a habit as a habit. Instead, it’s simply “what I do” every day without any thought of why or how I’m completing these actions.
When you feel that a stack has become a permanent behavior, that is when you can add a new habit to your daily routine. There isn’t a specific recommended timeline. Instead, the answer will be different from person to person.
Putting It All Together
There you have it: thirteen steps to build a habit stacking routine.
If you follow this blueprint, you can identify those important small actions, put them into a logical framework, and then complete each one with a single trigger or cue.