Habit Stacking

As you might imagine, I’m a big fan of books about “lifehacks”. What tweaks can we do that might make our lives even better. About a year ago I came across a book: Habit Stacking: 127 Small Actions That Take Five Minutes or Less. It was an OK book but I felt as if this 242 page book could have been an excellent long article. Here’s the basic, and quite useful principle:

Have a list of good habits you do every day. Instead of thinking of them as one-off habits you do whenever you can. “Stack” them. Make the first one a domino that starts a chain reaction to make the others happen. For example, my mornings feel really great now because there is a really clear chain reaction. My alarm goes off at 6, I do sitting meditation and then when that’s done I get in the shower. At the end of the shower, I brush my teeth, when that’s done I get dressed and go to the kitchen where I pour coffee. I drink my coffee while I make breakfast. I eat breakfast and play card games with Sage for chores (winner chooses two chores for each of us to do) and then after that I start work. On their own they’re good habits, but the completion of one now becomes the trigger for the next, training my brain to stick to a set routine that I love. “Orphaned” habits – ones without an attached trigger are harder to remember and harder to motivate myself to do.

One such “orphaned” habit is exercise. I do have a huge motivation to do it in that it makes me feel really good. I also tend to do it in the afternoon as it has become something of a reward at the end of the day. “Yay! You did it! Now go have a cocktail of happy neurochemicals to celebrate!”

Today, though, it doesn’t feel like that. Hindi class went late – until almost eleven PM. Then after that I was still feeling awake so I stayed up until almost midnight. Then, as seems to happen more and more often as I grow older, I awoke at 5:30 ready to go. After only five and a half hours of sleep I am still unable to go back to sleep. So off I go to start my day.

I have my usual morning routine, then I take my bike and trailer to the grocery store to stock up, come home and spend a couple hours in an improv class. Now, at 3PM I’m ready for a nap. But there’s a bit of a dilemma. If I do go to sleep, I am likely to wake up with no time to exercise before class. On the other hand I definitely don’t want to break my streak of over two months. I procrastinate and whine to myself but in the end I do it. And I am rewarded with a lovely day. The temperature is perfect: warm enough to feel like summer, cool enough that I hardly sweat while running. And the air quality is amazing. Everything appears to be in extra-sharp focus. If I didn’t know better I’d think I was about to have a migraine and this was just an aura. But no, this is just a perfect day for a run – one I wouldn’t have managed to do had I decided to nap instead.

As I cross the bridge, going further from the house than ever in this time of re-learning to run, I am rewarded by this view of the city.

The run finishes and I am feeling strong. I definitely am improving and will soon be able to run 5K or more. I know it now..

Running is mostly like meditation for me. I’m focused on breathing, my cadence, and where I’m going. But also things pop in to my head almost out of nowhere from time to time that monopolize my thoughts. Today I am back to “Habit Stacking”. But in this case I’m thinking about the negative version. Today it was much more difficult to motivate myself to run. I just wasn’t feeling like it, wanting, instead, to sleep. A few months back this was a very common occurrence and the result was a habit stack I’d created myself – one I thought was creating something positive in my life but was doing the opposite. In this case, I would drink coffee throughout the day. It would not only give me some motivation to get work done, it would also let me stay up later especially on weekends. I might drink coffee well in to early evening and then, with the extra energy, I might stay up until midnight or 1:00 AM. Then I would wake up again at five or six, exhausted. Instead of the positive stack I told of above, my routine was to drink three cups of coffee to feel energetic enough to move. Then maybe I would start getting ready. I’d make breakfast late, sometimes starting work late as a result of that. And then, too tired to exercise, I’d skip another day and either have a nap if it were a weekend or sleep on the bus on the way home. Then, when I would go to bed, despite feeling exhausted, the day’s caffeine intake would keep me awake longer. And the cycle would repeat. A cycle like that is easy to fall in to – especially with coffee which, for me, can trick me in to feeling that it inspires me, makes me happy and helps me get more work done.

In the end, a simple item in my list of daily habits put an end to that cycle. That entry says “No coffee after 1PM.” That’s it. I have as much as I want up until just after lunch. Then it’s time to stop. The result is that I am almost always ready to fall asleep in minutes at 10:00 PM. This gets me a solid 7-8 hours of sleep every day. And that sets me up for my positive habits that I start my day off with.

So even as you look at your life to see what positive changes you can make to your habits. Don’t be afraid to look at other habits you already have established to find out if they’re serving you well or if they’re giving you more unnecessary challenges.

17 thoughts on “Habit Stacking

  1. Motivational i love it. I struggle to get going in the mornings since lockdown where I used to be up and out at the gym or the pool so now I’m thinking how can i get some easy habits going that stack one on the other. I like the idea of 5 minutes of meditation before even getting up. Might try that 😁

    1. Thanks! So you prefer to exercise in the mornings? I can’t seem to make that regularly happen. I remember some time ago Strava sent out a year-end summary and my most active time is 6PM. Sounds about right.

      When I commute by bicycle, though, then I get moving at a reasonable hour – I’ll put in 20 km or so at 6:30 AM – but only because I want to be at work early. If I’m on a tour, getting on the road by 9 is a struggle.

      1. I used to exercise in the mornings and sometimes also after work (like when i had a triathlon coming up) but since lockdown I struggle to get up early so I do my workouts at lunch and after work. I’ve become useless in the mornings and can get up at 7.20 to sit down for work at 7.30 which is definitely not ideal!

      2. Wow – I’m completely useless for at least an hour after waking. I can’t imagine what waking 10 min before work would do! 😀

  2. I like the idea that you can have negative habit stacks too. One bad habit follows another. I think sugar does that for me. Thanks for the positive habit stack example. Our grandparents were right–routines are good.

      1. It sure helps now when days seem to blend together. The New York Times yesterday had a full page in the Science section about the various developments in vaccine. Thought of you of course.

      2. Yes – I’ve been following that as well. I see good progress being made even as things start to head back toward normal here. Of course even as things slowly open back up there’s talk of a likely second wave in the autumn. We will see. Hopefully by then we have a few more treatment options.

      3. Same here. We’re not out of the woods yet – but we’re doing lots better than we were. We’re hovering around the 200 new cases/day mark right now in Ontario.

      4. Sounds about the same. Many places are going to mandatory face masks. Transit will be that way in a couple of weeks. Seems like a wise decision until we get a more permanent solution. After all, this approach, thus far, has kept our healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

  3. A wonderful post Todd.
    I totally agree with you, the small good habits matter a lot and we have to start making small changes in our lives.

    1. For sure. I think life is a project of constant improvement as we grow older. We find some ways to improve our habits and make those changes. Other habits that once served us well are no longer effective so we change them.

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