Habit Stacking: Harness the Power of Routine

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Atomic Habits" by James Clear. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is habit stacking? How can integrating new habits into your existing routine help you stick to them more easily?

In behavior change psychology, habit stacking (also known as habit chaining) is a form of implementation intention. It involves stacking a new habit with one or more existing habits to facilitate its reinforcement.

Keep reading to learn about habit stacking and how it works.

What Is Habit Stacking?

Habit stacking exploits the phenomenon of accumulating behaviors, known as the Diderot Effect, to help create new habits. This effect describes the tendency for one major purchase to lead to another and another. Behaviors follow a similar tendency because no behavior exists in a vacuum. One action triggers another and so on. Understanding this fact helps you use current habits to build new ones.

The Diderot Effect

The Diderot Effect was named after French philosopher Denis Diderot who lived in poverty. One day, Diderot came into a large sum of money after selling his immense library of books. 

After using the money for some essentials, like paying for his daughter’s wedding, Diderot bought a silk robe. The robe stood out among his shabby home, so he started purchasing other fine items to match, which led to more fine purchases until his money was gone.

Rather than planning a new time and location for a new habit, habit stacking links a new behavior to a current one. The reward of the current habit becomes the cue for the new behavior. 

  • The formula is, “After I do X, I will do Y.”
  • Using the walking example, rather than using 2 pm as the cue, you might use lunch as the cue. “After I finish lunch, I will walk around the block for 20 minutes.”
  • You’re still creating a plan for future action, but this time, you’re linking the new behavior with an obvious behavior.

Habit stacking can also work with routines. Say you have a nightly routine as follows: You finish dinner, wash the dishes, wipe down the counters, and set the coffeemaker for the morning. If your desired identity is someone who eats healthier foods, you might implement a habit that supports that identity. Your routine might become: You finish dinner, wash the dishes, wipe down the counters, place a bowl, spoon, and box of cereal next to the coffeemaker, and set the coffeemaker for the morning. 

The example of laying out the bowl, spoon, and cereal highlights an important aspect of habit stacking. The cues you wish to create must make sense for the habit to be triggered and the follow-through to be successful. You must take into account which habits fit into which routines and when.

  • If you lay out your bowl and spoon before you wipe down the counters, you will be forced to move them, which may become an annoyance and hinder the action.
  • If you decide to walk for 20 minutes after you finish lunch but only have a 30-minute lunch break, you’ll never successfully perform the behavior, and the habit will not form.
  • If you want to start a daily habit but pair it with an infrequent habit, you will not create a proper cue for the behavior. 

As with implementation intention, make the behavior you will stack and the behavior upon which it will be stacked as specific as possible to create the highest level of success. 

  • “Write more” and “eat healthy” are goals with ambiguous systems. Likewise, “before dinner” is an ambiguous cue.
  • Instead, say “After changing out of my work clothes, I will write for 30 minutes.”
  • This attention to detail makes the cue and plan for action obvious.
Habit Stacking: Harness the Power of Routine

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of James Clear's "Atomic Habits" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Atomic Habits summary:

  • The 4 Stages of Habit Formation you can use to transform your life
  • How more than half of your daily actions are automatic
  • Why some habits stick and why others won't

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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