The story of habit stacking began at Oxford in 2007. Researchers were looking at infant brains, trying to understand them. Their results were quite profound. What they found is that, compared to adults, babies have far more neurons than adults. In fact, the average adult has 41% fewer of them. That’s the exact opposite of what they expected since, obviously, adults are smarter and more skilled than babies.1 Shouldn’t they need more neurons to do this? Actually, no.
As we age, we experience what is called synaptic pruning. This refers to the synaptic connections in our brain. Some become stronger with practice while others are pruned. In other words, your brain eliminates connections that you don’t use and builds ones that you do.2 For instance, if you practice Karate, the more you do, the better you become. That’s because the brain is strengthening your karate neurons. You become faster and also more efficient. So, over time, what was once difficult, becomes easy and seamless. We have all experienced this.
At the same time, another person, not in karate, is also not making their ‘karate’ connections stronger. However, they may be strengthening something else, like playing the guitar. You are becoming a karate master and they a guitar master. So your ‘music’ connections are being pruned away while your ‘karate’ connections are being built up. The exact opposite goes for the other guy.
When babies are born they essentially have a blank slate with infinite possibilities. But they don’t have any strong connections yet.
The idea of stacking habits originates with James Clear and his best-selling habit stacking book. Each time you form a habit, it is the result of strengthened connections. Brushing your teeth, making breakfast, showering, driving a car. There are literally thousands of them because you have ‘practiced’ them thousands of times. However, forming new habits, especially ones that you should, but don’t really want to develop, is usually challenging.
Here’s where habit stacking comes in. By adding a new habit to an existing one, the new habit is much more easily formed. In other words, rather than associating a new habit with a time or place, you make it part of another habit that you already have. It can effectively be ‘stacked’ before or after a current habit.
Examples of Habit Stacking
While habit stacking can work for any habit, our focus is on health. Here are some examples:
- Instead of going to the gym at 6:00, go to the gym after work. Clearly you have a habit of coming home from work, but maybe not one for exercising
- Before each meal, eat 2 pieces of fruit. Your current habit is eating and you want to add eating fruit.
- Rather than running each day at 8:00, go running after the kids get on the bus for school.
- Do 20 pushups after you brush your teeth in the morning.
Being Specific About Your Habit
While this all sounds reasonable and quite ingenious, it only works if you are specific about your goals. Let’s take the goal of going to the gym after work. When exactly is after work? Do you go straight to the gym from work? Or do you go home first? Do you go at 9:00 at night? There’s a lot of ambiguity there and it becomes easy for the night to end and you still haven’t worked out. So let’s add some specificity to the above goals so you can see what I mean
- Instead of going to the gym at 6:00, go directly home and change and then directly to the gym. Now you know precisely what the order is and there are no questions about when to go to the gym.
- Before each meal, eat 2 servings of fruit. A grape is a ‘piece’ of fruit, but obviously does not pass the muster test.
- Rather than running each day at 8:00, go running as soon as the kids get on the bus for school. Change into your workout clothes before you leave so you can begin your run at the bus stop.
- Do 20 pushups as soon as you finish rinsing off your toothbrush.
Stack For the Best Results
Habit stacking can be a powerful tool for change. By stacking new habits with old, they are simply easier to learn. But remember, they need to be specific. If not, they remain ambiguous and the chances of them actually becoming habits is reduced. Even with habit stacking, it doesn’t necessarily make a transition easy, but it does make it much easier.