Use Habit Stacking To Improve Your Wellbeing

February 6, 2024

1. What is habit stacking?

Habit stacking, otherwise known as “habit bundling” or “piggybacking”, refers to attaching a new habit to an existing one in order to create a habit that sticks. Examples include piggybacking a 2 minute mindfulness breathing routine to an existing regular running habit, or a morning gratitude journaling habit to reading your morning news.

2. Can habit stacking make implementing new, healthy habits easier?

Creating a new behaviour isn’t easy: it takes planning, thought into your choice of goals, often a number of relapses, the right type of motivation and self-confidence you can do it. Habit stacking helps to nudge us into taking that new behaviour, and helps us therefore to make a habit stick as there is less resistance or obstacles in the way. We effectively don’t need to think too much – everything is set up for you to successfully complete that positive behaviour.

3. Are there any psychological benefits in 'stacking' good habits?

We get potentially both psychological and physical benefits in succeeding to make our habits stick. Stacking habits is just one way we can do this. There are however quite a few routes to making sticky habits. And there isn’t any evidence to suggest that stacking habits, as opposed to having an accountability buddy or making that habit fun, for example, has more psychological benefits. Having said that, any strategies that aid us in making positive changes that are sustainable is great for our mental well-being. Habit stacking certainly can do that for us.

4. What advice do you have for people trying to break old habits this new year?

Self-compassion is key when we are trying to break old habits. This means treating ourselves with same kindness, care, warmth that we would naturally show to a good friend. Studies show that people who are more self-compassionate display an increased engagement in health related behaviours,  resulting in better overall physical health and immune function due to increased parasympathetic system and reduced sympathetic nervous system activation (Biber & Ellis, 2017; Homan & Sirois, 2017). Self-criticism, on the other hand is not an effective long term motivator. Self-criticism undermines self-confidence and leads to fear of failure. Self-compassionate people still have high standards but do not criticise themselves when obstacles get in the way or mistakes happen.

5. Are there any other ways to make starting something new easier?

o Make habits fun - for example trampolining to get in exercise as opposed to joining a gym. The more fun, the better. This increases our levels of ‘quality’ (intrinsic) motivation as we are doing a new behaviour we inherently enjoy

o Starting small so you can realistically achieve your habit – when we feel good at achieving our goal, however small, we are much more likely to continue!o Break down larger goals into manageable small ones – this ensures we don’t feel overwhelmed

o Temptation bundling: linking pleasurable temptations with a habit that provides delayed rewards (a way to boost our willpower!), such as only listening to your favourite podcast whilst cycling. This term was first coined by Katy Milkman (Milkman, Minson and Volpp, 2014) after studying temptation bundling with behaviour change. This makes activities that have delayed rewards more enticing and much more readily executed. In a recent large study (n= 6792), participants took part in a 4 week exercise programme (Kirgios et al, 2020). They received either an audiobook with advice to temptation bundle, only an audiobook or neither. The results showed that giving participants audiobooks and encouraging temptation bundling increased their chances of a weekly workout by 10-14% and average weekly workouts by 10-12% 17 weeks post intervention!

o Accountability buddy – adopting a friend or loved one to help you stay on track can be hugely effective

o Growth mindset approach – new habits take time and persistence. Having a  growth mindset, one that believes you can learn and grow, no matter what age, is hugely beneficial in helping you persist

o Fresh starts - hanging a habit change to different life chapters, that is natural break points in life, such as new move, starting a new job, start of the week or a new year

o Celebrate progress – increasing our levels of positive emotions make us feel good and more likely to continue with our habit. Acknowledging your progress also helps you to lean towards a growth mindset

Recommended articles