We love a good health and wellness podcast here at HEAL. Recently, we listened to a really interesting interview with James Clear, the author of the international bestselling book, Atomic Habits. James helps people start and stick to good habits and break bad ones by using something he calls ‘habit stacking’. When we learned about habit stacking we had a bit of a lightbulb moment, because we finally had a word (two, actually) to describe the way in which we’ve been most effective at helping clients implement new habits and achieve their health goals (and why some habits don’t stick).
With January being one of the most popular times of the year for people to try to create new healthy habits, and many people unfortunately finding that by now they’ve struggled to stick with them, we wanted to share some of his insight to help you revisit your goals if you feel like you’ve ‘fallen off the bandwagon’ a bit.
The longer you do something, the more ingrained in your brain it becomes. For example, it’s probably second nature for you to have a shower every morning, make a cup of coffee, or brush your teeth.
Habit stacking helps you take advantage of an existing behaviour like making a coffee and then "stack" on a new behaviour (like meditating for 1 minute or drinking a cup of water) that you want to make a more permanent habit.
It looks like this: After/Before [current habit], I will [new habit].
This is part of the reason why it’s so difficult to stick to goals like “workout 5 days a week for 1 hour at a time” when you haven’t been working out at all. A much more realistic way of building this would be to workout consistently for even 5-10 minutes every day, then slowly increase the amount of time you workout once it’s already a part of your routine. This might seem like an extremely short amount of time for some people, but if you want exercise to be a permanent part of your life, it makes sense to think of it this way. Habits built like this tend to also be much more difficult to break.
It’s also why diets that are very far from your current way of eating are so tough to maintain. You haven’t built up the small, consistent behaviours that can more easily fit into your lifestyle.
We use habit stacking all the time for this with our one-on-one clients. It’s difficult to remember to take your supplements, especially if they’re hidden in a cupboard or somewhere you don’t see them. It also explains why supplements taken with meals (i.e. with a habit) are easier to remember to take than supplements that are supposed to be taken away from meals.
When a client has a hard time remembering to take supplements, we suggest they put them somewhere they’ll see them. For example, on your desk, or on your kitchen counter. One example we came across was to put your supplements on your coffee machine so that when you make your coffee, you take your supplements. If your supplement has to be stored in the fridge, put it beside something you grab all the time, like your milk (or nut milk) for your morning coffee.
By the same token, if you’re trying to stop a habit, like drinking or eating junk food, it actually does help to keep them out of sight, and therefore out of mind.
This is a really basic practice that surprisingly many people struggle with, simply because they forget. If your goal is to drink more water, think about habits you already have where adding a glass of water makes sense.
Here are some examples:
It also helps to invest in a large water bottle or drinking vessel to reduce the amount of times you need to fill up and therefore reduce the amount of places you need reminders. ;)
We know that doing some form of meal prep ahead of the week can help you make healthier choices when the week progresses and things get busy. If you’ve never meal prepped, the idea that you have to make all your food on Sunday is obviously very daunting (and may not be realistic).
Instead, try this:
This is also why ‘healthy swaps’ over time can add up to make a big impact on someone’s overall diet. These foods are already a part of your routine, you’re just switching them out for something similar but better for you. Things like cauliflower rice instead of rice, green tea instead of coffee, lettuce wraps instead of wraps, etc.
We use this concept in the Wellness Challenge that we run with companies. Our aim is to introduce small and relatively simple habits that make a big impact and add on new ones gradually over the course of the program. Eventually, participants are doing things like drinking 2L of water every day, moving their body for 20-30 mins every day, turning off technology before bed, and getting outside more.
Have an example of how habit stacking has helped you? Share in the comments below!