Need a Motivational Boost? Try Habit Stacking!

It’s no secret that creating and sticking to a new habit can be a challenge. It’s not as easy to start something new and do it every day when outside factors like family, work, and unforeseen circumstances can derail even the best-intentioned habits.  

In one well-documented example, many people set out to start something fresh in January with resolutions for their new year, only to find themselves dropping off come summer. In fact, one study from New Plate and Ipsos found that 55 percent of respondents kept their New Year’s resolution for less than a year and 11 percent for less than a month. 

So, how can we better stick to our well-intentioned desires to change existing habits and create new ones?

The anatomy of a habit 

Around half of our daily actions are driven by repetition, or repeated habits. 

According to James Clear, bestselling author of Atomic Habits, a single habit is comprised of four main parts: cue, craving, response, and reward. For a habit to form, all four parts must be observed. 

  • The cue is the initial thing that gets our attention. Most of the time, this is a signal to our brains that something we want – like social approval, love, personal satisfaction, or money – might be on the other side of doing something new.
  • The craving is the desire we feel to obtain the things we want. These are the thoughts and feelings that fuel our behavior and incentivize us to act. 
  • The response is performing the behavior by leveraging the motivation we’ve cultivated.
  • And the reward is the pleasure we feel after accomplishing what we set out to do.  

Rinse, repeat, and a well-formed habit is born. 

The difference between a habit and a routine

While they might seem synonymous at first glance, a habit and a routine are two different things: When any behavior is regularly performed, it’s a routine. But before it becomes a habit, the routine must evolve even further. 

That’s where many people stumble — wanting their well-intentioned habit to come with an automatic routine. On the contrary, humans need to create the routine that forms the habit. And with repeated habits making up 50 percent of our days, it’s important to understand how to create the ones that bring us the most joy, health, and happiness. 

So, what’s the secret to starting and keeping a new routine for the long-term? Enter habit stacking. 

What is habit stacking? 

Habit stacking is exactly how it sounds: “stacking” new habits on top of existing ones to build routines that are more attainable. The idea was popularized by Clear in Atomic Habits, where he discusses two ideas, implementation intention and behavior shaping.  

An implementation intention is “a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit.” Habit stacking helps set that intention, which shapes future behavior. 

Say you want to add a morning stretch to your pre-work routine. As a standalone addition, it might feel like an overwhelming ask for an already packed morning. But if you “stack” it onto an existing habit and set an intention around it, stretching becomes an extension of that established habit. For example, if you brew coffee before you turn on your computer, stretch for 10 minutes immediately after turning the coffee pot on to build an association and a new habit. 

The role work plays in building habits 

Stacking habits to build efficiency isn’t just reserved for our personal productivity; it influences productivity at work too. The current ways of working have the average person changing screens or tabs 566 times a day(!). Deloitte identified these two issues as problematic determinants of wellbeing in the workplace. Not only do styles of working (like too many tabs) lead to fatigue and distraction, but it also interferes with focus and the ability to move forward in a productive way. 

Habit stacking can help address the stutter-starting of projects and inform proper prioritization over constant task switching. By identifying the goals you want to accomplish at work, you can decide which existing habits can be the base of your stack. For example, if your goal is to be timely with email responses, “stack” a 30-minute time block on top of a daily recurring task and use that half-hour to respond to emails. Clear also notes that having a “highly specific and immediately actionable” trigger habit ensures that the stack not only happens but also sticks. 

Many of us have dozens of tabs open or are doing multiple tasks at once. Rather than ping-ponging through various to-dos, select one must-do and “stack” it on top of another daily task. If a packed meeting schedule takes up hours of your day, insert one item from your to-do list on top of each meeting. For example, follow up your morning team standup with finalizing the PowerPoint updates for the monthly all-staff gathering. 

How to start habit stacking 

We’ve talked about habit stacking and how it can improve productivity and adaptation of new tasks, but how do we get started?  

Start small

Finishing an entire PowerPoint presentation in one shot after checking emails is too much. Instead, pick a smaller step in that process, such as completing the PowerPoint brief after checking emails. Then, finish the first section after your regular weekly meeting, and so on. Like goal setting, breaking habits into manageable milestones ensures greater success toward the result. You can’t run a marathon without completing the half marathon within it, right? 

Don’t overthink it 

Instead of mulling over the hypotheticals of a particular habit, just do it. Creating momentum and repeating the process will ensure more efficiency down the line. One great way to do this is by considering one habit’s reward as the cue for the following habit stacked on top — with no break in between. 

Use existing resources

If your company invests in a wellness program, engaging with it can be a great launch point for establishing a habit stack — and vice versa! If you want to utilize your company’s resources more, carve out time after emails or a key meeting to engage with its modules. For example, use the few minutes before your lunchbreak each day to complete a learning module on mindful eating, or read through the latest tips on financial wellbeing after you fill out your timecard each day.  

Staying up to date on your company’s wellness platform offerings and infusing them into your overall habit stack can help influence major lifestyle changes one day at a time.  

Use the buddy system

Accountability goes a long way in any new initiative, and that includes habit stacking. Is there a colleague or friend that shares the same desires when it comes to starting new habits? Hold each other accountable during transition periods between habits and use one another’s positive reinforcement as the “reward” stage of each habit.  

Kickstart a new habit  

Building new habits doesn’t have to be a cumbersome challenge. With the right support, accountability, and resources, everyone can create a stable stack of habits. Sonic Boom Wellness, a digital wellbeing platform, addresses habit stacking within its daily challenges, and it’s the most engaged-with topic at the start of each new year. Learn more about how the platform can support you and your teams. 

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