Habit Stacking – how to easily create good routines

We’re rarely aware of this, but our routines originated from one habit. Maybe you used to brush your teeth in the evening and jump straight to bed. Over time it has developed into flossing, journaling, and meditating. Or maybe, it developed into watching Netflix in bed and scrolling social media.

While most of these routines are developed unconsciously, you can use this habit of stacking to build better routines.

Let’s have a look at what habit stacking is, why it’s so effective, how you can use it to create better habits, and some examples of habit stacking.

A sum up of a post about habit stacking
Habit stacking

What is habit stacking?

Habit stacking is a great way to build new habits and routines. You do this by placing a new behavior immediately after you finish an existing habit. By doing this, you’ll stack the new behavior on the old habit. Slowly, they’ll merge together into a routine.

You already have stacked habits you might not be aware of. Most of your routines originated from one habit. Over time, new behaviors are stacked on top of the first habit to create routines.

Depending on the quality of the first habit, your personality, and more, the routines can be both “good” and “bad.” The easiest way to ensure habit stacking works in your favor is to be aware of how it works. By being aware, you can use it to build good habits and stop bad routines from getting out of control.

Why does habit stacking make building new habits easy?

Habit stacking is one of the easiest ways to build new habits. But why is it so effective?

A habit goes through 4 stages. Cue, craving, response, and reward. For a habit to be formed, all stages have to be present.

The response is the behavior, and most behaviors already have a reward. The reward can trigger the craving, but for the reward to do so, it needs a cue. A cue that triggers the craving and makes you want to finish the habit loop. Often when you fail forming a new habit, this will be where you fail.

When you stack a behavior on top of another habit, the reward of the first habit will act as a cue for the second. It will make you crave the second behavior, and you’ll finish the habit loop. As you do this enough times, it’ll be automatic, and the habit is formed.

Habit stacking is so effective because it removes your need for having an external cue to your new behavior. It’s an easy solution to the hardest part of building new habits.

Showing how the habit loop looks when you stack habits
The habit loop with stacked habits

How to stack habits

Let’s have a look at how you can use habit stacking to create better habits and routines for yourself.

What is the intention of your new habits?

Before you begin to form new habits, you need to know your intentions. What habit are you trying to create, why do you want it, and how will it benefit you?

When you ask yourself these questions, you get a clear idea of what you want and why you want it. Knowing this will make it easier to form habits and stick with them.

Related: Identity-based habits

Find the trigger habit

When you know which behavior you want, you have to find a trigger habit. The trigger habit is the behavior you will use as the foundation of your habit stack.

The most effective triggers are something that you do automatically every day—getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, and eating meals all act as great triggers at different times of the day. You can find an effective trigger habit, by making a habit scorecard.

Start small and be patient

Forming habits is a slow process. It takes a lot of time to make it stick, and often, we get impatient in the process. We want it to be faster. We want results now. This impatience might make us try to do too much too soon, and we fail.

When you’re trying to build new habits, you have to be patient. Work on just one or two behaviors at a time. Give them the time to stick, don’t try to rush the process. It can be frustrating to wait when you want to change now. But rushing it and having to start over is far more frustrating.

You get better through many small changes. Give yourself time to do this.

Related: The power of small wins

Build your habit staircase

When you’ve stacked your first habits, you can begin to build a habit staircase. Or in other words, shape your routine.

A habit staircase is many habits added on top of each to create a sequence or a routine. It will take a long time to build, but as it grows, it’ll be easier to maintain. Adding new habits to the routine will be easier as you have more places to stack your new behaviors.

How to use habit stacking examples

Let’s have a look at some examples of how I’ve used habit stacking to create routines for myself.

Some of the habits in the stacks might have existed before I stacked them, but changing when you do something, is also a change in your habits.

Related: How long does it take to form a habit?

The morning routine

My goal was to create a morning routine that would give me a good start to the day.

For now, I get up when the alarm rings, but most mornings are spent in the bathroom scrolling my phone before hurrying out the door to make it to work or school in time. I often don’t have time for eating.

I identify turning the alarm off as my trigger habit. After I’ve turned the alarm off, I get up and make my bed. From here, I can slowly add other behaviors to the stack to create a morning routine. The order in which I stack these looks like the following:

  1. Turn the alarm off
  2. Make the bed
  3. Drink 3 glasses of water
  4. Make breakfast
  5. Eat breakfast
  6. Go to the bathroom
  7. Brush teeth
  8. Get ready for the day

I started by adding the habit of making my bed before returning to my usual routine. Slowly I added more behaviors, and over time, I built a morning routine that gave me a better start to the day.

The nighttime sequence

My goal was to create a nighttime sequence I could do before going to bed to help me fall asleep.

For now, I brush my teeth, and what I do after this varies. I either scroll through social media, watch something, or try to go straight to sleep.

I identify brushing my teeth as the trigger habit. After I’ve brushed my teeth, I start to floss. From here, I can slowly add other behaviors to the stack to help create a nighttime sequence. An example of the order in which I stacked them looks like the following:

  1. Brush teeth
  2. Use floss
  3. Journal
  4. Meditate
  5. Go to the bathroom
  6. Apply hand lotion and lip balm
  7. Turn the light off
  8. Go to sleep

I started by doing something as simple as using dental floss to create a healthy nighttime sequence that helped me calm down and get better sleep.

The cool-down evening

My goal was to create an evening routine where my time is spent on something that brings me value.

For now, I eat dinner in front of the tv. I put my plates away before returning to the couch and continuing to binge-watch Netflix.

I identify putting my plates away as the trigger habit. After I’ve put them away, I start to pick up a book and read. From here, I can slowly add more behaviors to the stack and create an evening routine that brings me more value. The order in which I stacked the habits looks like this:

  1. Put my plates away
  2. Pick up a good book and read
  3. Go to the kitchen and do the dishes
  4. Take a short walk
  5. Do a short yoga
  6. Check me schedule for the next day and update it

I substituted binge-watching with something that I struggled to find time for during the day. 

Take away

Habit stacking is an effective way of building lasting habits. It works by placing a new behavior after an existing habit. This way, the reward of the first habit will work as a cue for the second behavior.

When you’ve started to stack the first habits, you can slowly work on shaping your routines to help you reach your goals.

What to read about next:

Habits- A simple guide to self-improvement with better habits

Good habits – How to effectively build healthier habits

Habit tracking – How to make good habits stick easily