There is an old Buddhist quote that says that the path to Many always leads through One. And when it comes to habits and habit stacking routine, the impact (the Many) that you want to build for yourself has to go through the right input (the One).
Before we jump into the process, we need to cover a fundamental matter that would serve as the base of our habit stacking routine:
What do you want to accomplish?
There was a guy driving a car once and he got lost in the city. So he stopped by the first house he saw to ask for direction.
“Hey, I’m lost. Can you help me out?”
“Can you point me to Bleecher’s street?”
“Where do you want to go?”
“To the town hall, I have a meeting there.”
“Well, don’t go to Bleecher’s street. Just take this road until the end, turn left, and head straight. You will reach the town hall easier like that.”
“Ok, thanks”, and the guy drove away.
The town hall wasn’t on Bleecher’s street, but the guy who was driving the car and wanted to go to the town hall meeting thought he had to drive through that exact street to reach the town hall.
But he got an easier route and an easier way to reach is because his goal wasn’t Bleecher’s street, it was the town hall.
The same thing applies to your habit stacking routine. It’s not about what you need to do, it’s about what you want to accomplish. The starting point is always the endpoint.
What do you want out of that habit stacking routine at the end? Only once you’re clear on that can you develop an actual path of getting there which is your habit stacking routine.
And the way you build your habit stacking routine is through the following steps.
Fundamentals of a Habit Stacking Routine
This is the step where most habit stacking routines fail actually. Because it’s not about people being lazy and not working stuff, it’s about the decision-making process in distinguishing what is actually important to do. And I want to include a term I picked up from MJ DeMarco here known as “action-faking.”
What is “action-faking” you might ask:
Action-faking (as opposed to “action taking”) is when you take a solitary and/or uncommitted action that is NOT a part of the bigger process.
So what you’re doing is not actually acting to imbue real change, but to momentarily feel good and fool yourself about progress. Action-faking can be many things in many different contexts.
It’s like reading books — if you’re reading them to learn how to build a habit and to understand nuances behind it –cool, then it’s action taking.
But if you’re reading books just to read books or to “double down” on your knowledge because you’re still “not ready,” then you’re simply action-faking. Reading books is important for your progress…. until it’s not.
You mistake that you indeed act, maybe once, twice or for a week, but your actions aren’t directly correlated to what moves the needle. And as I already mentioned in many of my previous articles, the things that move the needle are the only things that matter when it comes to habit building.
But this trick works perfectly for our brains — we’re secreting a momentary dopamine high, fooling ourselves with the progress illusions, when in truth, we’re just wasting time.
So find out what’s your 80/20 (80% of outcomes come from 20% of actions — also known as the Pareto Principle) and just do the 20.
If you want to build a great body and you know that you will need to do it in a gym, then what’s your “20” there? It’s actually going to the gym.
Watching YouTube videos about it is action-faking. Reading books about it is action-faking. Buying equipment like gloves, shoes, clothes, and a gym bag is action-faking.
The only thing that matters is for you to show up at the gym regularly.
That’s the thing that will move the needle and that’s the thing you need to do.
Great, you’ve figured out what you want to accomplish and what the best forward through the process is. I congratulate you on that.
The next step in our habit stacking process is to design your environment in a way that helps you make a habit out of the “action-taking” process.
So by taking the example above of building a great body and the action-taking process of going to the gym, we come to the point where we need to build a support system for that.
And when it comes to the environmental design, we have two different sides to it and we should use both of them:
Negative Environmental Design
Negative environmental design is about eliminating the things, stuff, people, and situations from your surroundings that make your action-taking (habit stacking routine) harder.
So negative environmental design is about eliminating stuff that prevents you, in the example above, from going to the gym.
With that in mind, we could remove the remote controller and the TV from our living room to stop us from binge-watching TV instead of going to the gym, we could stop hanging out with our colleagues after work that just sucks out all of our energy and depletes us from any resources that we could use to go to the gym. We could also stop going shopping every afternoon because it would free up our time to go to the gym.
These are just a couple of examples of how you can eliminate things our of your environment that prevent you from, in this case, going to the gym.
And then, there is the other side of the same coin.
Positive Environmental Design
Positive environmental design is about adding things, stuff, people, and situations from your surroundings that make your action-taking (habit stacking routine) easier.
So positive environmental design is about adding stuff that helps you, in the example above, to the gym.
With that in mind, we could put our gym bag right next to the doors or carry it with us on our work to jump to the gym as soon as we finish working. Or we could get a gym membership from a local gym which is just 10 minutes away. Also, we could start going to the gym with a partner — it would increase our accountability toward our goals.
These are just a couple of examples and you’re free to create your own. But the point isn’t to just have one or the other, but about having both of them. Some of you will react better to a negative environmental design, while some will need positive environmental design more.
I, personally, am more of a negative environmental design person because I found out that it helps me so much more to stick with my habits than a positive environmental design. And I discovered great ways on how to create the negative environmental design through gamification process I learned from Glisser.com’s blog section. It helped me design my own negative environmental process.
Since everyone is different and needs a different dose of both, try out different things and see how they work for you.
When most people think about habit stacking routines, they think about if/then clauses.
“If I put my shoes on, I will go to the gym. If I go to the gym, then I will exercise. If I exercise, then I will get results.”
If/then clauses work perfectly in a habit stacking routine… until you put too much of them. Because you can create the next habit stacking routine:
“If I put my clothes on, then I will go to the gym.
If I go to the gym, then I will exercise.
If I exercise, then I will buy healthy food to eat.”
If I buy healthy food to eat, then I will jog for an hour after.
If I jog for an hour, then I will do a series of push-ups.
If I do a series of push-ups, then I will put clothes next to my bed.
If I put clothes next to my bed, then I will go to sleep.
If I go to sleep, then when I wake up I will put my clothes on.
If I put my clothes on, then I will go to the gym…”
The problem with if/then clauses is that they work for a limited set of factors and lines.
What I mean by that is that you can, and you should, create an if/then clause but only for a limited number of actions.
I always give the advice to limit the number of actions to two. And by that I mean the following:
“If I brush my teeth, I will floss afterward.”
“If I go to the gym, I will exercise.”
“If I buy a healthy meal, I will eat it.”
That’s it. I always recommend just this because it’s easy and it doesn’t program you to do a million different things that change your day drastically. That will have a failure rate of 99,7%.
This is a simple if/then clause that helps you add up just a tiny bit of action for a massive result (remember the 80/20 rule).
And you should limit these clauses to only two new ones per day.
So with our example above of adding up a gym habit, then you can add up just one separate, tiny action on top of something else to stack the habits.
We already have:
“If I do X, then I will go to the gym.”
If you want to build a great body, then I suggest adding up a tiny if/then clause to something else that is complementary with the gym habit. And here is an example:
- “If I gossip at the water cooler, then I will eat a banana/apple/something healthy after that.” (positive env. design)
- “If I have breakfast, then I will add up eggs to it.” (positive env. design)
- “If I drink coffee today, then I won’t sugar it. (negative env. design)
- “If I go out for drinks with friends, then I won’t go to a fast-food joint later.” (negative env. design)
You can create your own one, these were just a couple of examples but remember, you have to stick with only one (besides the gym habit).
If you try with more, you won’t be able to pull it off and you will regress back to the starting positions.
Make a Straight Line
And this last one is more of a psychological than a technical one. I see this quite often with successful people with a lot of energy and vigor– they want to do things fast because they have the capacity and energy to do it.
But that approach fails the most out of any.
Making a straight line toward your accomplishment isn’t about rushing to the goal and pushing yourself day in, day out. It’s about investing in creating that habit stacking routine that will be a part of your life–forever.
This isn’t a “accomplish and drop” type of work. It’s about a lifestyle. And the only you get to incorporate that into your lifestyle is by going slow, going steady, going straight and going small.
It’s about the daily actions that you do that accumulate into massive results at the end and create the habit in the first place. You don’t build a bridge from a single piece of stone or metal. You do it by stacking small pieces on top of each other to create something strong that lasts.
13 Steps to Build a Positive Habit Stacking Routine
To be able to implement the fundamentals mentioned previously, you need to have a daily routine that includes minor steps contributing to habit stacking. For example, if you want to avoid action-faking, you’ll have to plan your day in a way that promotes action-taking. This list of 13 steps will guide you on how you can do so.
1. Have Room For One New Habit At a Time
Habit stacking is all about piling up as many habits as possible for greater productivity. However, trying to take them all on at once is going to lead to a major failure. At a time, add only one habit to your stack.
Each habit can take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to get a permanent spot in your life. If you try to add more than one new habit to your routine, the process will become way harder with little chances of success.
Only when your new habit becomes a natural part of your routine, should you move onto a new one.
2. Fix a Time And Location
A routine has got a lot to do with the time and location. If you go to the same gym every day at 9 am, that is a habit your mind has gotten used to. So, if you’re trying to add a new habit to your life, you’ll need a fixed place and time for it in your day.
If you want to add meditation to your habit stack, make up your mind and meditate at the same time, in the same place every single day.
3. Focus on The Small Accomplishments
Start off with easier habits so that accomplishing them boosts your willpower. S. J. Scott, the writer of Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take 5 Minutes or Less strongly emphasizes this point.
Give your brain a pat on the back for every small win. This helps strengthen your determination which will, in turn, make it easier for you to fulfill bigger goals.
4. Reward Yourself
Whenever you think you’ve worked well, reward yourself. Be it accomplishing your day’s schedule or your weekly checklist with the new habit, reward yourself.
These rewards should be small but ones with a strong, long-term impact. For example, after a whole week of going to the gym regularly, you may eat out at the weekend or treat yourself to ice cream.
5. Have a Motivation
Behind every habit you plan to add to your stack, there must be a strong enough motivation to keep you going. Having the answer to a ‘why is necessary to keep you on track. This is what will keep you from quitting even when things get hard.
6. Use Time-blocks
You already have a routine. Work and personal commitments take up all of your time. How are you supposed to add a new habit to this routine, let alone make time to make it a permanent one?
The answer is: use time-blocks.
Set out 5 minutes from your day. Use this time block to reinforce the habit you want to add to your stack. 5 minutes might not sound like a lot of time but once you start making an effort in this time block every day, you’ll notice growth and progress.
7. Have a Plan
Don’t leap into what’s trendy or sounds appealing. Have a logical checklist of everything you need to do to build a habit. The entire plan you need to follow should be well thought out from the get-go.
8. One Step At a Time
With a plan in mind, follow it with a flow. Take it one step at a time. Each day, progress according to the plan. Start with incredibly simple steps and build your persistence to harder tasks so that you don’t lose the will to continue.
9. Repetition And Consistency Are The Keys
The best way to make a habit become a part of your routine without having to go through any hassle is to make it a part of your muscle memory. To do so, repetition is the best trick.
Consistently repeat the ‘habit’ every day for at least 30 days and then, you won’t have to struggle with it anymore. Try not to skip doing the task two days in a row. Moreover, if you’re short on time, skip parts of the task to make it easier to accomplish.
10. Make Use Of Triggers And Cues
Triggers and cues encourage repetition. Anything that reminds you to take action towards habit stacking is your cue. This can be an external alarm, a reminder from a friend, a post-it on your fridge, and other things of the sort. However, a trigger can only be an internal feeling or emotion that makes you get up and take action.
The healthiest triggers in habit stacking are existing habits or other naturally occurring things in your routine. For example, every day at 2 pm, you know you have to eat lunch. After lunch, you remember to work out. After every workout, you know you have to drink a glass of water.
11. Track Your Time
Time management can be one of the biggest concerns in habit stacking. First of all, make use of the Pomodoro technique. This technique can be applied using the time blocks that initially helped you build a habit. You work for 25 minutes and then get a 5-minute break to freshen up without losing the flow of work.
Another tip here is to prioritize. You can do two things; get done with the most important tasks of the day early on when you’re the most productive, or get done with the smallest tasks so that the majority of the work is out of the way in minimal time.
12. Be Accountable
Not being answerable is the biggest motivation to give up. First of all, be accountable to yourself. Verbal accountability isn’t all. Tell a friend where you plan to be in a month. Post about your progress on social media.
Knowing that other people know is sometimes enough. Other times, a friend asking you about your updated progress will give you the push that you need.
13. Add to Your Stack
When the habit becomes part of your existing permanent routine, it’s time to add to the stack of habits. Move onto the next habit you want to add to your life and start with the entire process all over again.
Add more time-blocks to the initial time frame you set out for new habits. For example, if you start with a 5-minute habit the first month, you can increase this stack to 10 minutes the next month by including a new habit.
And with that in mind, I will leave you with a quote you read at the beginning of this article because it perfectly encircles the message.
The path to Many (habits) always leads through One (habit).
More Tips on Habits Building
- What Is a Routine? 9 Ways Routines Make Your Life Easier
- How to Break a Habit and Hack the Habit Loop
- How Do You Change a Habit (According to Psychology)
Featured photo credit: Ben White via unsplash.com