Habit Stacking to Eliminate Bad Habits

by Corey Philip
September 28, 2019

Forming new habits and forgoing bad ones is a matter of breaking inertia. Even if you’re spending all your days being a couch potato, you’re still mired in a negative habit loop of watching tv, endless scrolling through social media or playing video games.

Creating new habits necessitate breaking those old patterns and offsetting better systems for living your life. Both happen simultaneously and that’s why many people struggle with changing their old ways.

They can be easily swayed by old habits that don’t make them progress just because it’s what their mind and body have been used to for a long time.

Transitioning to better habits is one of the most popular topics nowadays not only in self-help and psychology but also in business. Many entrepreneurs are quickly realizing that good habits can positively impact their business and personal growth.

Books have been written about it like “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, which went viral in influencer networks, “Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by S.J. Scott, and “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.

Here we’ll tackle the basic points about habits and give you a comprehensive yet actionable guide to habit stacking as a way to eliminate bad habits.

The Habit Loop

Before we’d only define habits as an automatic behavior pattern that requires no deep thinking or sophisticated decision-making. It’s an acquired practice that a person develops over a long period of time. There’s still some debate about how long it actually takes to cement a habit, with the range going from 21 days to 6 months.

Now that there’s more research into it, we can point down to the three things that make up a habit:

1. Trigger

A trigger is the external or internal cue that signals a following action. It can either be physical that notifies you through the senses — a sound, scent, or sight — or an internal feeling.

Triggers can be natural as when you feel hungry, it’s typically a sign to eat. It can also be developed as you can train yourself to be sensitive to a particular trigger and assign a specific action that should follow it.

2. Action

Action is the fulfillment of the habit. When you receive the trigger, you immediately do the attached action to it. When you wake up, for example, the action is to immediately get up and make your bed.

3. Reward

Reward is the motivation that drives the action. When you act on a trigger, it’s usually because you want to get the reward.

In relation to bad habits, the reward is usually instant gratification. When you wake up and the action following it is to immediately browse your phone for notifications, the reward is an extra hour or two in bed consuming mindless entertainment, which is enjoyable in the moment.

When creating new habits, assigning small rewards to the actions you want to complete is the best way to trick yourself into following through.

These concepts are further explained in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

Thinking of Your Habits as a Stack

Habit stacking is simply about grouping a bunch of things together into a routine instead of tackling them as individual tasks.

A good example is a morning routine. This is also a concept that went viral because every self-help author and writer on the Internet has probably recommended it.

A morning routine is a group of tasks that you do first thing in the morning. It normally consists of tasks that will take a few seconds to a few minutes like drinking water, meditating, and such. When one task ends, it signals another thing until you finish everything.

When you use the strategy of tackling them one by one, you need a trigger and reward for each individual task. It might be exciting to have the feeling that you’re getting more done but in the long run it can get overwhelming.

It can cause burnout when you get past that initial feeling of elation and suddenly feel like you have too much on your plate when one habit is literally just making your bed.

Tackling them as a group is one way to hack your psychology and get a lot of things done with just one routine.

Build Up Small Wins

“The key to habit stacking is to start with small expectations, build the muscle memory of completing routines, and then add more tasks once you’re consistent.”​

— Steve Scott

Like any vice, habit stacking can become addicting, albeit in a good way. The key is to stimulate that happy hormone that you get every time you complete a routine as often as possible. This is how budgeting and fitness becomes addicting for people.

When you budget and get to save up the goal amount you initially set to save, you become more motivated to add to that and reach a higher amount the next time.

When you go to the gym regularly, it becomes addicting especially if you see the results you wanted. If you’d been consistently losing 2 lbs every week, you become more motivated to not break that streak and even bring that up to 5 lbs a week until such time that you reach your ideal weight or physical strength.

These are evidence that small wins can build momentum of completing habits.

Give Yourself a Small Reward

Rewards are a personal thing, especially for acquired habits. You can literally make it anything you want and make your own rules.

If you were addicted to ice cream and just recently acquired good health and fitness habits, you can still make ice cream your reward for whenever you’re able to follow through with your fitness schedule for the week.

The key is to not indulge. It’s okay to satiate your old cravings by making them your reward. In doing so, you can also better regulate yourself into not craving them all the time.

Keep Committed to the Stack

No one is perfect and when you’re just beginning a new habit, you don’t get better overnight. It takes a process and sometimes you’ll find a day when you slacked off on something.

That’s normal and is not automatically a failure. Just go back to your stack and make that happen as often as you set out for it. Every stack, whether daily, weekly, or monthly, have some perils of being ignored or forgotten.

The most important thing is you keep at it no matter the setbacks.

As with sleeping habits, if you’re used to sleeping at 4 am but want to change that and make 12 midnight your bedtime, you definitely won’t be able to sleep at 12 the first night. Still you have to get to bed at 12 and stay in bed until you get to sleep even if that’s 2 hours or 3 hours later.

You might be tempted to get up and do something productive, but what you’re doing is training your mind and body to go to bed and get to sleep at 12. It won’t be able to do that when you keep letting yourself have something to do during that time while you can’t sleep.

When a Habit Stops Being a Habit

This is when you know your life is changed.

Habit stacking ultimately leads to systematizing and automating your life. The goal is not to have a list of things that you consciously do with a set repetition. Instead, the goal is to not have a list of things that you consciously do. You just naturally do them because your mind and body are conditioned to do them.

About the author

Corey Philip

Corey Philip is a small business owner / investor with a focus on home service businesses.

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