Habit Stacking--How to Integrate Healthy Habits

Updated: Jul 12

By Fleet Maull, PhD

In the process of designing our ceremonies or daily rituals to enhance our personal and professional lives, there is a very helpful concept called “Habit Stacking,” which I would like to explore here.


Habit stacking consists of putting in place new habits that we know will create the kind of results we’re looking for. These new habits and new activities will form the overall ceremony of our daily life, which then creates not only our immediate results but our future destiny.


What is the most effective way to add new habits to that overall landscape? The idea is that we stack a desired new habit on an already existing one, sometimes called the anchor. We anchor a new habit on an already existing habit.


What are some consistent habits you have? Maybe it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning, or brushing your teeth, or taking a shower. Maybe you come home from work every day and put your keys in a certain place, or take off your shoes, whatever. These behaviors are pretty hard-wired into how you operate on a daily basis. The idea is to pick some of these neutral or positive habits that you don’t feel you need to change, and then use them to anchor the new habits.


Creating Better Habits and Grooving Them As we focus on certain activities, our neuroplastic brain develops new connections, and the resulting neural pathways become more and more robust. Neural pathways that we‘re not using are pruned or become less robust. Our brain is focusing on and providing more energy to the most well-worn roadways, so to speak, supporting our most consistent habits.


For example, if you learn to play the piano and you practice regularly, that ability to play the piano is represented by neural pathways and networks in your brain that are well-worn and well-defined. They‘re like well-lighted roadways. You can go right along without even thinking about it.


Whatever new habit you‘re trying to build into your life, whether it has to do with meditation, breathing, exercise, or ways to enhance your relationships, you can stack these onto already existing anchor habits. Let’s say we have an exercise routine well-grooved, which we are doing every day. Maybe we would like to add to it a gratitude list - spending a few minutes connecting with things we appreciate in our life. The idea is to take some habit or activity you already do regularly and then commit to stacking or linking the new habit onto it until it becomes as ingrained as the anchor habit.


Once you do that once, you can then anchor another habit, and, later, anchor another habit, and then another. This is basically what I did with my morning routine. I wake up, turn on the light, take the covers off, start doing crunches, and then the next exercise, the next exercise, the next exercise. I shower, brush my teeth, meditate, and then have breakfast. My whole morning routine, until I start my actual workday at about nine o’clock, is ritualized and well-worn. It’s precisely what I want to do, to make sure I take care of myself physically and spiritually. That routine is so well-grooved that it’s hard for me not to follow it every day.



Life as a Ceremony


Let’s step back and talk about life by design, the idea of ceremony, or daily ritual. This could create some natural resistance. You might think: I prefer to just go with the flow and be like a falling leaf in the wind, you know, the idea of the Zen master just flowing with life. When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m tired, I sleep, etc. That’s all well and good if we’re already highly-realized, wandering ascetics and don’t have many daily responsibilities, but that’s not the case for most of us. We mostly have rather challenging lives, filled with stress and demands, having to work a lot to make a living. In addition, many of us have our share of different kinds of wounding from our childhood, as well as shared collective traumas. Just because we’ve been meditating for 40 years doesn’t mean that we don’t have emotional or healing work to do.


And we are also trying to evolve personally, and do so on many lines of development--physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual development. We want to grow as human beings, and that is not going to happen through wishful thinking. According to Tony Robbins, the two ideas that are the bedrock of real happiness and fulfillment are the deeply felt sense 1) that I’m growing and evolving personally, and 2) that I’m contributing to life.



Obstacles to Changing Habits


When trying to change habits, we are up against two very strong currents: 1) our own personal conditioning, traumas and limiting beliefs and 2) our pre-existing habits. We received most of that conditioning before we were seven years old. We’ve been building habits throughout our lifetime. However old you may be right now, you have that number of years of building habitual patterns. It’s that strong current we’re going against when we try to make changes. Those habitual patterns push back. It’s hard to reverse them, even habits that are no longer useful. The bottom line is that we need an intentional approach, in which we build a daily ritual, made up of linked routines and subroutines, that we follow consistently in order to reverse years of conditioning and allow good habits to take root.


This “life by design” may sound regimented. You might think I don't want my life to be that scheduled. However, who is controlling your life if you don’t take those steps? Absent intentional design and proactive positive habit development, your life is being driven by both the current of your past conditioning and programming, most of which you had no say in developing, and the other current of distractions and other people’s agendas from the world around you, which is more like a tidal wave. We all have a tsunami of distractions and influences coming at us every day. Part of what we’re doing is setting ourselves up to not be controlled by our past habitual patterns and our conditioning, and instead, to begin restructuring our brain’s neural architecture so that it serves us. We’re designing how we want to live our life, and creating the resilience we need to stay the course and surf the waves of internal and external distractions.


Ruts and Grooves – Changing Your Neural Comfort Zone


The phenomena of neuroplasticity allows us to restructure our brain through conscious habit development, which could be likened to developing well-grooved neural pathways and networks. When we are stuck in old or undesirable habits, we colloquially refer to this as being stuck in a rut, which is actually a deeply ingrained neural pathway. When we build in new habits, we’re grooving them in the same way somebody talks about getting their baseball swing or golf swing grooved, so they can perform it smoothly through neural and muscle memory, without thinking about it.

Through conscious life design and habit restructuring, we create a new neural landscape, which then becomes a new neuronal comfort zone, which is represented by neural pathways and a particular neurochemical mix in our brain reflecting cognitive, emotional, and physiological states that feel like us. That new landscape reflects who I am, what I want from life, my life purpose and direction, and my ethical principles. The more clarity I develop for myself about all that and the more I reinforce it through consciously designed daily routines and rituals, the more resilient and reliable my neural architecture becomes, keeping me on course. If I start to veer off course, I’m going to experience cognitive dissonance and emotional discomfort, which will help me get back on track.


I remember hearing from a trainer one time that the great equalizer in life is we all have 24 hours every day. That’s the same for everybody. Optimizing our use of that time by taking care of ourselves and accomplishing what we want in our lives, requires design because when I don’t do that, I know from experience, my conditioning takes over and the world takes over, and my life starts drifting off course in ways that detract from my life goals and principles and undermine my overall happiness and fulfillment.


Importance of Self-Care & Resilience


Our ability to develop these positive habits, to maintain them, and to spend as much time as possible in that flow where we’re happiest and contributing to life, has much to do with our overall resilience. It starts with taking care of ourselves. We need to make sure our daily life ceremony optimizes healthy self-care practices (enough sleep, healthy diet, plenty of water, proper breathing exercise, etc) that keep us in a physically resilient state.


Likewise, creating and maintaining healthy, nurturing relationships with others is important to our overall resilience and well-being. Consciously cultivating relationships that nurture us and avoiding--or doing the work to heal--those that drain us is a very wise investment in our well-being and quality of life.



Conclusion


You can begin experimenting with habit stacking right now. Identify a simple neutral anchor habit, one that you have in your life, that’s pretty well-grooved in your brain. Try adding a habit to that, something you do immediately following the anchor habit. Give it a try and commit to practicing the new habit until it becomes ingrained and natural. Don’t worry about perfection or getting off track; that’s part of the process. Just keep going.


It may feel like two steps forward and one step back for a while, but if you stick with it, you’ll see a difference. Keep it simple and don’t take on too much at once. Just try one thing and stick with it until you’re successful. You can use the science of habit change and “habit stacking” in particular to create the life you want, the life of your dreams. And don’t forget, as conscious, living beings, we are destined to grow and thrive. Life design is really about tapping into and actualizing the unconditional, innate goodness, flow and resilience residing in the very depth of our being.

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