what is habit stacking and does it work?
Andy Garland Therapies - Counselling Cardiff - Mental Health Services Cardiff - Cardiff Therapists - habit stacking

Building better habits isn't easy. We say we'll start meditating every day, juicing, hitting the gym a certain number of times a week, stop negative self-talk... and somehow the days roll on just as they did before. If this sounds familiar, you might want to try habit stacking.

It's a method that takes some of the high level motivation needed to create new habits out by 'stacking' them onto daily activities you already do. Think of the mindless things you do without much consideration each day, such as brushing your teeth.

This is a perfect place to habit stack. While doing the automatic habit you already have of brushing your teeth, you tag a new habit on top, with brushing your teeth the 'trigger'. Habit stacking isn't about cutting things out, it's about adding things in - which is an empowering approach to take.

Daniela Mercado Beivide, a PhD researcher for Holly Health, an app that focuses on building better mental and physical health through habit stacking, tells us that the idea is to 'create habits alongside a routine to keep up the habit'. 'It usually takes an event or change of mindset to want to create new and healthy habits - for instance, a health diagnosis, or the New Year,' she says. 'However, we find that setting up a new habit isn't the hardest part: practicing the habit and maintaining your momentum is often the most challenging.

'We all have intentions and habit stacking is a good strategy to turn those into actions that can improve your wellbeing in the long-term. 'By stacking new habits onto existing ones, we're saving our brains a whole lot of effort, and sparing ourselves the disappointment that comes when we rely on "willpower" to achieve our goals.'

How do you make habit stacking work?

Daniela advises working with no more than four new habits to begin with, but even having just a couple is a good place to start. 'Pick an activity that you already do automatically and without thinking about it (this is called hinging event in behavioural science) and then "piggyback" an extra action you want to start incorporating into your routine,' she says. 'For example, every morning while waiting for bread to toast, you will do five jumping jacks. Try to be as specific as possible. 'Start with small actions that feel easy enough for you to do on a daily basis, and work up from there,' she says.

Andy Garland Therapies - Counselling Cardiff - Mental Health Services Cardiff - Cardiff Therapists - habit stacking

It's important to choose things that make you feel good rather than things you think you 'should' be doing. 'Take a moment to notice how you feel after doing them,' says Daniela. 'You'll be more likely to stick to behaviours based on that rewarding sensation that comes from doing something good for your body and mind.

'Human beings are not designed to be static: we enjoy new experiences and things that make us feel excited, satisfied and challenged. 'By experimenting with new skills and new experiences, we help to keep our brains functioning which can be beneficial for not only interpersonal interaction but also keep improving our cognitive function as we age.'

And as for the science behind why this technique works, Daniela explains: 'The neuroscience is our brains are really trying to cut corners as much as they can, as our brains use the most energy, so things need to be efficient. 'If something comes as a shortcut, the brain will do it and this is the hack in habit stacking.'

Andy Garland Therapies - Counselling Cardiff - Mental Health Services Cardiff - Cardiff Therapists - habit stacking

Does habit stacking work?

With this information, I put habit stacking to the test for little over a week. While you can't expect big changes in that time, you might start to notice new habitual behaviours begin to form. Daniela recommends sticking to habits for three to five weeks - doing them at the same time and place - to make them automatic, though it does vary depending on the person and what they're trying to implement.

Starting with two simple habits, Daniela advised me to pick very easy 'incremental' things with as few steps to them as possible, as there's more chance I'd do them. For most people, saying you'll run five miles every morning isn't a realistic habit to start with, for example. I chose to say positive affirmations to myself after brushing my teeth, morning and night, and to get a glass of water when I switched on my laptop in the mornings for work.

I picked these as I'm often dehydrated and I've used affirmations positively before, but let the habit die. Grabbing my laptop and brushing my teeth are things I do without thinking, so these were easy hinging moments. With reminders popping up on my phone from the Holly Health app, it was drilled more into my brain to make the effort.

It felt easy at first, but two days ago I had a slightly different morning, waking up to go to a press event rather than switching on my laptop at the usual time. Once I got back home and logged on, hours later than on a normal day, I forgot to get the water with my mind already full of the things I needed to quickly get done. Only realising I'd forgotten the next morning, it made me see the need to pick hinging points in the day that are static and unlikely to change.

Over time, with continued use, I think these habits would become more automatic, so I plan to keep going with these two, perhaps even adding more in at a later date. Daniela told me you can be smart about it too with more time. For example, if you notice when you're anxious you go to bite your nails, you can stack on top of noticing you're anxious, making the next habit to stand up and stretch perhaps, then gradually overriding the urge and habit to bite your nails. I'm going to make an effort to notice what my patterns are when stress hits, and see if I can stack better, healthier habits instead. Thinking about your New Year goals? Try a habit stacking approach - they just might stick.

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