I often hear people talk about wanting to start a new diet or exercise routine or maybe wanting to make more time for other things like reading or meditation. Then, on the reverse end of the spectrum I hear people discuss the struggle of trying to quit bad habits like smoking. Often the discussions involve words like motivation, willpower and discipline, but the truth is it really is not about any of those things, its more closely related to creating a habit through cues and routines. The best term I have heard used for the process is habit stacking, taking a routine you already have that you like and is working well for you and stacking new habits on top of it to create an endless stream of productivity. The end result? A life you love!
Most of our lives are built on little habits that are triggered by cues that we may not even be aware of. At noon you may eat lunch even if you are not hungry, when watching a movie you may eat popcorn even if you are not hungry…brand name companies have become experts at connecting fun activities like socializing with friends, going to the movies or going to a sporting event with their hot dog, beer or soft drink. Even in the grocery isles we can see how the store is set-up and product placement in order to boost sales of the more expensive items. So knowing this about our world around us and knowing that this process works why not use it in other areas for your own advantage?
I have been habit stacking for a few years now and the results have been amazing for me. I have also become more aware of certain cues or triggers for bad habits I had created in life, once you are aware you can modify. I arrive home from work and instantly want to put on comfortable clothes, get some food and relax on the couch in front of the TV after a long day. I allow myself one hour of whatever show I am currently in to and then the goal was to shut the TV off, clean up my dishes and head down the hall to my bedroom for my nightly routine. However, in this process I already saw bad habits starting to creep in. I would get really interested in a show and decide one more episode was okay but I had also created a habit of eating while watching so I would reach for ice cream or a cookie if I would continue to watch. I am in a current job that is a lot of sitting at a desk all day and so my activity level has greatly reduced in the last year. With no activity and more snacking in front of the TV it was easy to predict what the future would hold, so changes had to be made.
Goals are easy to have, the steps on how to get there are the keys to success. This is where habit stacking comes into play. My goal is to get more active and make sitting in front of the TV and snacking less rewarding. When I drive to and home from work I always take a bottle of water and drink it on the drive. That way I know I am getting at least 34 ounces of water automatically. This is a healthy choice that feels automatic and like a reward, so I have tried to stack a new habit of health onto that. As soon as I get home instead of changing into my comfort clothes I already have my workout clothes laid out and I change and go for a walk before I head for the kitchen for food. As part of my nightly routine I lay out workout clothes for the next day. When I get back from a walk I am more likely to choose a healthier meal and less likely to reach for the sweet snacks when watching TV because the desire to keep the healthy stream of choices going is greater with all the work I have already put in. In my morning routine I lay a new book I am excited to read on my bed after I make it so that I am less likely to spend extra time in front of the TV in the evening. Looking forward to reading before bed makes the reward of reading after TV a better reward instead of doing more of the same. This process may not work as well for someone else, but everyone’s cues, routines and rewards will be different.
I already had a habit of drinking coffee with too much french vanilla creamer on my way to work each morning and I knew it wasn’t healthy. Now, I get the same sweet flavor without the caffeine and sugar in a vanilla chai black tea. All of these little changes by themselves do not seem like much but when you start adding them together, over time if I stick with them and build upon them it will add up to some pretty awesome results. Less calories in my coffee, a walk every night, more time reading instead of being in front of the TV, choosing healthier dinner because I already put in the effort with my walk…this creates a natural stacking of great habits that will spill over into even more areas of life.
I have a love of getting manicures and pedicures, I also love getting my teeth cleaned about every six months (weird I know). When I have pretty fingers and toes and nice white teeth I am more likely to put the effort into myself in other ways as well. This domino effect is natural for everyone and if you use it to your advantage it can get you where you want to be. The time of day, the environment and other good habits already in motion are good keys to stack upon. When considering a new habit pick the time, place and what habit would be the easiest to stack on (before or after) in order to make it stick. Time of day and environment we are in often set the tone and give cues for how we respond without us realizing it. Ask yourself what habits you perform in certain rooms of the house. Maybe you have a favorite reading chair or maybe your couch is where you are lazy, binge watching TV and playing video games. Sometimes moving the furniture around and redefining your space can make it easier to create a new, healthier habit.
Also, just like placement of products at a grocery store or creating mental associations in advertising, we can change our environments. Place bottled water on the top shelf of the fridge for easy access and put sodas or beer in the bottom drawers or out in a fridge in the garage where it is harder to access than the healthy stuff. Place a bowl of fruit on the counter for easy access instead of a plate of cookies. Every little change will add up to big results over time and small changes are more likely to be lifetime changes than if we attempt to start a whole new diet and throw away everything in the pantry. Small steps lead to bigger and lasting results so get stacking!
With love, happiness and health,