Habit stacking: Use your old habits to introduce new ones, and new habits to eliminate old ones

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken”

– Samuel Johnson

We rarely notice what our habits are until we try to change them. Our habits are what we do without thinking. They are the familiar responses that are triggered by the various stages of our routine: we walk through the kitchen in the morning, and we drink coffee; we get into our car, and we drive to work; we sit down in a bar, and we order the usual.

We don’t ask ourselves if we particularly want to do these things, we simply do them out of habit.

It makes sense, then, that changing your habits is easiest when you’re going through a major life transition. The parts of your routine that triggered your habits have changed, and you are forced to find new ways to respond to the world around you.

Creating new habits from old ones

Unfortunately, it’s not practical to undergo major life transitions every time you want to pick up a new habit. You can’t move house just because you want to start flossing. Luckily, you can take advantage of your current habits to build new ones with a technique called habit stacking.

Habit stacking works by attaching a new habit to an old one, like so:

  • “After I brush my teeth, I will floss”
  • “After I eat dinner, I will meditate”
  • “When I open my web browser, I will read one article in my field of study”

By using an existing habit to trigger a new one, you can very quickly introduce new positive activities into your life much more consistently.

Replacing old habits with new ones

But what happens when you want to eliminate a bad habit? Because your habits are caused by triggers in your routine, you can use habit stacking to introduce new habits that distance you from those triggers.

For example:

  • “Before I smoke a cigarette, I will run for 10 minutes”
  • “Before I eat a hamburger, I will eat a salad”
  • “Before I shout at someone I am frustrated with, I will count to 10 in another room”

Often, trying to avoid bad habits directly just makes the urge to engage in them even stronger. The “I want what I can’t have” mentality is very difficult to break. Habit stacking tries to distance your old habit from it’s trigger by inserting a new habit between them. By the time you have completed the new habit, the conditions that triggered the old habit have hopefully passed, and it is easier to resist temptation.

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