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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

What Is Habit Stacking and How Can It Make You More Productive?

person sitting at a table in a light-filled room looking at an open laptop while sipping from a mug
Bailey Zelena; Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

Productivity rules the modern world. The majority of us are desperately looking for ways to “get more stuff done.” In fact, a recent survey found that “be productive” is the most popular self-growth goal among respondents in the U.S., U.K., and Australia—more than “be happy,” “have a healthy body,” “have more money,” or “love and be loved.” But the point, perhaps, is that productivity can help us get our work done more efficiently and ultimately carve out more time for the people and experiences that bring us joy. 

If you’ve already worked your way through a library of productivity hacks or are frustrated that those New Year’s resolutions didn’t quite stick, why not make things a little easier for yourself? If you’re looking to develop a new habit—and keep it—you might want to try habit stacking. The technique trains your brain to associate a new habit with an old one, making it simple to complete both and more likely the new habit will become as ingrained as the old one. 

If the viral TikTok videos are any indication, habit stacking is hot—and has helped posters successfully assimilate new habits like reading each morning or calling their grandma more often. Whether or not you’ve heard the term already, we’ve got you covered with what habit stacking is, why and how it works, what it looks like IRL, and how you can use the strategy yourself.

What is habit stacking and why does it work?

“Habit stacking is a technique for building new habits by ‘stacking’ them on top of existing ones,” says Dr. Courtney Conley, a licensed therapist and the founder of Expanding Horizons Counseling and Wellness. “If you already brush your teeth before bed, you could stack a new habit of reading for 30 minutes before bedtime. By attaching the new habit to an existing one, you create a cue or trigger for the new habit, making it more likely to stick.”

As Michael Uram, a licensed marriage and family therapist and CEO of Uram Family Therapy explains, the approach’s popularity has been building for a while. In the 2018 book Atomic Habits, author James Clear adapted and combined two previously well-established theories—“implementation intention” and “behavior shaping”—to present a straightforward technique that anybody can use to create new, lasting habits.

The theory is pretty simple: You work with your brain, not against it, when trying something new. “The powerful idea takes advantage of our brain’s natural ability to chunk information into sequences that then become one in our memory, just like how we remember area codes as one object instead of three numbers,” Uram says. “This increases our chances of completing all the steps of a task because they all feel like they fit together.” So when your brain recognizes two habits as one complete task, it feels natural to do them consecutively.

If it’s not your first rodeo and you’ve tried to adopt new habits before now, you’ll know that it’s rarely easy to make them stick. However, according to a scientific theory called synaptic pruning, the secret to your success lies in sheer repetition.

“When a behavior is repeated over and over, the synapses involved in that behavior become stronger, and the brain prunes away synapses that are not being used,” Conley says. “It is thought to be one of the ways that habits are formed, and why they can be difficult to break once they are established.”

So the more you repeat a behavior, the more it becomes ingrained in your brain. But repeating an entirely new behavior enough to make it a habit can be tough when it doesn’t yet feel automatic. Habit stacking helps you sidestep that problem. By piggybacking off an already ingrained habit, creating a new one requires less effort.

Why should you try habit stacking?

Whether or not you’re a habit hopper who can never seem to stick to a new routine, this approach will help you slide new tasks into your day without them becoming a major inconvenience.

“The main benefit is that it helps you make progress and achieve your goals without feeling overwhelmed or discouraged by the amount of effort required,” says Dr. Carolina Estevez, a licensed psychologist at Infinite Recovery. “By connecting new habits to existing ones, you are creating a bridge between the two that makes taking action much easier.”

While you can apply the approach to any area of your life, it’s an ideal way to manage your workday and get more done. “Habit stacking can be a great tool for work-related tasks like taking regular breaks, staying hydrated, and setting aside time to focus on tasks,” adds Becca Smith, LPC, the Chief Clinical Officer at BasePoint Academy.

3 examples of habit stacking you can copy or adapt

Want to give habit stacking a whirl? Now that you’ve got the theory down, let’s talk about what it might actually look like. Here are three adaptable examples of the approach:

  • Set priorities for your day after you check your emails. For many of us, the first task—or, indeed, habit—of the morning is checking our emails. Once you’ve checked your inbox, you might dive straight into your workday. However, this is the perfect opportunity to tack a quick review of your tasks onto your existing habit. Check out what you have to do in the coming hours and prioritize each of the activities by importance. “This can help you stay focused and on task throughout the day,” Conley says.
  • Declutter your workspace after lunch. Do you chow down at the same time each day? Add a decluttering habit afterward. When you return to your desk, take a couple of minutes to tidy it up and get things in order. “This can help you start the afternoon with a clear and organized space, which can lead to a more productive and focused work day,” Conley says.
  • Apply for jobs after your morning workout. Searching for a new role can feel like a real drag. By the time the end of the working day rolls around, you’re too drained to get moving. So why not switch things around? If you’re an early riser who’s already in the habit of doing a morning workout, spend 20-30 minutes looking and applying for new jobs as you cool down. There’s an unexpected bonus to stacking these two habits together: Your endorphin levels soar post-exercise, which will lift your mood and put you in the right mindset to search for new opportunities.

5 expert tips for habit stacking

By now, you should have a clear view of what habit stacking is and what types of tasks you can combine. If you’re ready to give it a try, take a look at these tips to get started.

1. Start with a small, simple habit.

Real talk: The new habit you stack onto an existing one can’t be too big. For example, if you try to tack “completing a whole presentation” onto “checking your emails,” you’re setting yourself up for failure. Be realistic.

“If you make your habit too difficult or overwhelming, it’s more likely that you’ll give up,” Estevez says. “Start with something simple. This will help build momentum and make further habits easier to add in the future. Remember it’s better to do something small than do nothing at all.”

2. Create milestones for yourself.

It’s a wise move to break down goals and projects into smaller steps and track your progress against those milestones en route to your ultimate destination, and the same is true for habit stacking.

“Procrastination is no joke,” Uram says. “We often state intentions to do things, and then never follow through without a great explanation why,” he adds. “The best way to beat procrastination is to create several milestones along the way that are attached to positive attributes of your success. In short, find a way to be proud of yourself.”

3. And reward yourself as you go.

You deserve a pat on the back. “If you’re feeling unmotivated, try to make habit stacking more enjoyable by adding rewards or fun activities that will keep you motivated,” Smith says. “For example, if you finish a task early, take a break, watch an episode of your favorite show, or go for a walk.”

4. Don’t overthink it—just take action.

“Overthinking things is often our worst enemy,” Uman says. “Doing something before you have the chance to talk yourself out of it is a great strategy.” Stick to the five-second rule: Don’t spend longer than five seconds considering your next task before you take action. The moment the existing habit is done, move straight onto the next. Take action, and make it snappy.

5. Find an accountability buddy.

No person is an island. While you might think you’re ready to embark on a solo habit stacking adventure, it’s a smart move to call for some backup. Consider sharing the experience.

“Habits can be difficult to build alone, so make sure to reach out for support if you need it,” Smith says. You might want to enlist the help of a close friend, a colleague, or a family member as an accountability buddy who can help you stick to the new habits you’re building each day.