The Art of Habit Stacking

Habit stacking: just another trendy buzz word, or the answer to our failing-new-years-resolution nightmares?

We’re a couple of weeks into the new year, we’ve had our first stint back at work, and we’ve already fallen off the wagon… we’ve all been there. How easy 5 minutes of daily meditation seemed back on December 31st… and how simple drinking 8 glasses of water sounded to past-us… and yet these simple resolutions become so hard to crack the moment life resumes. 

So what’s the problem – is it about willpower? Do we genuinely not have enough time in the day to do these things? The sad truth is that it most likely isn’t the latter, when we realise just how much time we spend mindlessly scrolling through our phones, or when you add up the time spent travelling… so what are we missing when it comes to trying to build new habits?

Let’s talk science

Here’s the exciting bit: it doesn’t just come down to motivation, or willpower, or ‘how bad do you want it’ – it’s about science. So the good news is that by knowing the science, you can use this to your advantage, and train your brain to adopt the habits that matter to you. 

Rewind

Let’s take it back a bit. Ok, a LOT. Let’s rewind to when we were newborns – little babies full of wonder and, as it turns out, an enormous capacity to learn new habits. Research shows that the average adult has a huge 41% fewer neurons in their brains than the average newborn, despite adults being smarter, and more skilled. The reason for this? As we age, we experience ‘synaptic pruning’. Synapses are the connections between the neurons in our brains. The idea being that our brains prune away connections between neurons that aren’t being used, and build connection between ones that are used more frequently. For example, someone who practices the piano for 10 years will have dramatically strengthened the connections between the musical neurons, connections becoming faster are able to express skills with more ease and expertise. Development comes about through biological change… not ‘willpower’ (or any other intangible term for that matter!).

So we’ve pictured the expert pianist, meanwhile, someone who’s never touched the keys before is not only not strengthening those musical neurons, their brain is in fact pruning away those abandoned connections, instead allocating energy to building connections for other life skills more relevant to that person.

So what are we getting at?

If our lives leading up to this point have essentially paved the way for current ‘us’, rewiring our brains to now create new connections is hard. We can’t rewind time and teach past-us to eat more vegetables or make a habit of doing mobility. So what’s the solution? 

Synaptic Pruning and its role in building Habits

Synaptic pruning occurs with every habit you build. The more you do something, the stronger and more effective the connection between those neurons becomes. We likely each have a whole host of solid habits we take for granted – from brushing our teeth, or putting our phone on charge before we go to bed – these are all habits that we’ve practiced, strengthened and developed over time. So… it’s time to take advantage of these existing habits to help build new ones.

How?

If we’re looking to build a new habit, we can connect it to an existing one, and use this connectedness to our advantage. Identify something you already do, that is somehow linked to the new habit you want to build. The obvious connection is timing; if you’re wanting to get into a new morning habit, think of an existing morning ritual you do without fail. For example – if you are looking to increase water intake, let’s have that first glass when you brush your teeth. You might ask yourself – why not just set an alarm as a reminder? But then… we need to remember to set the alarm in the first place, so we are then back to where we started with working out how we can get in the habit of setting a reminder alarm. Eek!

Let’s get practical

If you have some resolutions or goals in mind which require a new habit to be formed, write them down. Note the ideal time of day or circumstances where you hope to implement this habit. Now, think of something you already do around that time or perhaps in that location. Write that down too (the act of writing it down will help this process – so don’t just do this task in your head!). We’re already halfway there. Now, identify if any barriers might stand in your way. Using the water example – is there a glass in your bathroom where you brush your teeth? No? This is a barrier. When you brush your teeth, even if you remember you want to drink a glass of water, we’ve now added in an extra step by needing to go and fetch a glass. Instead, put the glass there now. And when it’s time to pop it in the wash, immediately replace it with a fresh one. We’re getting there! Once this habit becomes automatic, you’ve then created a whole new opportunity to add a further new habit. And so the stacking begins!

Over to you!

So there you have it… Habit stacking in a nutshell! Now over to you! Hopefully this brief glimpse into the workings of brain will empower you to take practical steps towards creating new, positive and healthy habits, not just for 2022 – but for good! Be sure to check out our related articles on the SCFIT blog, such as finding some direction when it comes to goal setting, tips on how to get started with a new venture in your life, and a delve into motivation

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