Habit stacking, or anchoring a new habit onto an established
one, is proven to hardwire new routines and slash stress. Here, the tiny tweaks that spur big success!
You have high hopes of dropping a few pounds to get ready
for summer, but the thought of overhauling your entire lifestyle has felt too daunting. Rest assured, your reluctance has nothing to do with so-called “willpower.”
“Our brains tend to perceive new routines as scary, unleashing the stress hormone cortisol, and causing us to freeze instead of act,” says psychologist Judy Ho, Ph.D., author of Stop Self-Sabotage. “It’s this ‘change angst’ that often holds us back from
making positive progress.”
Luckily, it is possible to outsmart this defense mechanism by “habit stacking,” that is, tethering a new behavior to an established one, such as doing a few squats while waiting for your tea to brew. In fact, about 75 percent of people who start with tiny habits make them automatic within five days, says BJ Fogg, Ph.D., founder of Stanford’s Behavior Design Lab and author of Tiny Habits.
“These small wins build momentum so the tiny leads to the transformational.” Layering habits also increases our
mental reserves. About 45 percent of our everyday actions are on autopilot to prevent us from wasting precious mental resources, says psychologist Yael Hallak, author of Changing Your Life in a Year. “Piggybacking a new activity onto a familiar one keeps our brain from working too hard and feeling fatigued.” Ready to boost your noodle and make new habits stick? Just follow our super easy 4-step plan.
Step 1: Pick your prompt.
To trigger the momentum needed to create a new habit, simply pinpoint your “prompt” — or the established routine to which you can tether your new one. If you’d like to get into the healthy habit of drinking more water, for example, you might tell yourself, Every time I turn on my computer in the morning, I’ll pour myself a glass of water. According to Fogg, this strategy is a lot like winning a game of Monopoly, by clustering properties together to maximize their power.
“Just think of old routines like real. estate, and your new habit as something you can ‘develop’ nearby.” Why it works: This tactic takes advantage of established neural pathways already created by your “prompt” habit, making your brain less resistant to change. “Instead of having to remind yourself to perform a new task, this approach makes it almost automatic,” assures Fogg. “It’s like putting training wheels on the behavior — and
when you make a new habit so easy, it’s much harder to ‘fall off.’”
Step 2: Start on the sunny side.
When adopting new habits, the when and where are key. “Getting specific about the time and location eliminates ambiguity, making our goals concrete and setting us up for success,” says Fogg. The best time to stack? In the am, when our brain is typically the. most energized. As for location, the kitchen and bathroom are ideal because they’re filled with potential prompts, such as: When I start the coffee maker, I’ll take my vitamins or As I brush my teeth, I’ll hold in my abs to build muscle.
Why it works: Small successes in the morning are shown to make us feel good for the rest of the day. “That’s because our brain rewards us with doses of the happiness chemical dopamine,” explains Ho. “This mood boost makes us want to repeat
the behavior in order to get that ‘hit’ of positivity, making it more
likely that the habit will stick and become a long-term routine.”
Step 3: Savor small victories.
As soon as you complete a tiny new task, make sure you celebrate the change you’re making. “Positive emotions powerfully hardwire habits into our brain,” promises Fogg. In fact, his research reveals that simply smiling, doing a fist pump, saying “victory” aloud or even imagining colorful fireworks dancing in the sky after you execute a new task signals to your brain that this is a meaningful step, helping cement the new routine.”
We create successful change by feeling good, so just remember A-B-C: Anchor, Behavior, Celebrate.” Why it works: Savoring a new task with mini celebrations is like “habit fertilizer,” says Fogg, increasing confidence and boosting resilience, which help keep us on track. These positive feelings make it much easier to create new habits, because when you’re feeling better and more exploratory, you’re also more compassionate with yourself, allowing you to put setbacks in perspective and get back up on the habit-stacking horse.
Step 4: Turn peeves into pearls.
Once you become a master at building new habits, you’ll likely
discover opportunities to make healthy changes in surprising areas. of your life, such as in your emotional well-being. The happiness-enhancing forces of gratitude and positive thinking, after all, are habits that can be fostered like any other.
One easy way to do just that is by using an interruption or annoyance — like hearing a neighbor’s. dog barking — as your “prompt” to treat yourself to the habit of optimism, by thinking of three small things you’re grateful for. Or consider complimenting yourself whenever you stub your toe or reminding yourself of your daily goals when you stop at a red light. Says Fogg, “I call these ‘pearl habits,’ because they use prompts that start out as irritants, like a grain of sand in an oyster shell, and turn them into something beautiful.”
Why it works: “Reframing negative events this way opens the door to new ways of managing situations that would otherwise cause anxiety,” he explains. “You’ll soon notice your stress levels dropping significantly — as small habits grow, you’ll discover new opportunities, and your life will transform!”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.