• Atara Weisberger

Stacking Habits


Well that's a strange phrase...

Habits are among the most powerful drivers of human behavior. Why? Because they are automatic. Habits require little to no thought or planning.

They don't require willpower. They are built into your schedule and built into your life. In short, habits are behaviors that have morphed from what you do into who you are. They are part and parcel of your lifestyle.

The automaticity of habits can work for you or against you, depending on what you are trying to accomplish.

On the positive side, if self-care is a habit and not just a set of behaviors - like eating healthfully, sleeping eight hours a night, moving your body daily - you can operate on cruise control and still be taking care of yourself. On the flip side, if you are trying to make healthier choices, you may run up against old habits and patterns that get in the way. Since habit trumps willpower, how can you make progress in the long run? Good question! There is a way to hack the system! It's not a short cut or a quick fix. But it does take advantage of current habits to build new, more healthful habits!

What do you want to change? What do you already do?


Here is how stacking health behaviors works. Let's assume that you want to jump start a morning exercise routine. Let's also assume that you are in the habit of making your lunch for work the night before. Since you are already in the groove of preparing for the next day, when you make your lunch, you decide to lay out your exercise clothes for the morning. You are stacking a new behavior on top of a habit. With time and repetition, the two actions become one 'bedtime routine'.

Let's pick another example.

You would like to learn to meditate. But you just can't get yourself to sit down and be still for even a few minutes. Too much to do. Too much in your head. Too buzzy. As soon as your alarm goes off, bleary-eyed and barely able to see in front of you, you manage to find the kitchen. Your autopilot also manages to find the coffee and the pourover cup. Soon, your daily brew is in hand. If you were to stack the new desired behavior on top of this well-worn coffee habit, it might look like using the four minutes while your coffeee is brewing to meditate. Your coffee is your reward for practicing (and stacking) the new behavior of meditation.


The key to successful long term change is to recognize that the goal is to create new HABITS, not just new behaviors. Behaviors outside of the context of the rest of your life just sit on the surface of daily living and often rely on chance, willpower or perfect circumstances to make them happen. Habit is effortless. The difference between a behavior and a habit? Repetition. It can take several months for a new behavior to become a habit (that '21 days to a new habit' rumor isn't supported by research). It doesn't have to be repeated daily but it should be repeated as often as you would like it to show up as a habit. Want to work out three times a week? Which current habit can you stack the new behavior on top of that you do at least three times a week? Start with five minutes of exercise if need be, three times a week.The purpose is to train the behavior, not the exact details. Your goal is to create a habit!


Stacking Pleasure and Challenge



There is one more technique when it comes to stacking and building new habits: combining something pleasurable with a less-pleasurable new behavior. Trying to get better at food prep for the week but don't like chopping and cleaning all those veggies? Listen to a podcast, TED talk or music, or talk on the phone with a friend or family member while you are food prepping. Don't like exercise but love socializing? How can you set up your exercise to combine the two? Let me know how it goes!!!