Making habits stick, for now and for life
One of the most frequently mentioned challenges we hear about when speaking to people about improving their work performance is trying to make behaviour changes stick. Changing behaviour hurts, it needs discipline, consistency and there are no short cuts.
Indeed, habit-building is a lifetime-long endeavour. Because as soon as you stop engaging in that behaviour, it stops being a habit. In this piece, we want to talk about two methods for improving your chances of making habits stick over the long term, the lifelong term, that habits need: habit stacking and habit identification.
The term habit stacking was first popularised by journalist SJ Scott. The idea is that by clustering the habits we want to develop and sustain, we stand more chance of remembering them by associating related tasks with each other, hence clustering, or ‘stacking’ new behaviours. So if you wanted to make a few changes in your daily routine – some examples include to meditate, eat a healthy breakfast, drink more water, plan your priority tasks for the day, floss, drink a healthy juice, take a vitamin pill, learn a new language, journal, exercise more, stop work earlier, brush your teeth for at least 2 minutes a day, go to bed by 10pm, don’t check devices for at least an hour before bed. First of all, let’s notice that that looks like a very long list and it’s important to be realistic about what you can achieve, but some of these behaviours can be introduced in a less time-intensive way and then increased in intensity when you’re ready.
One way of changing behaviours is habit by habit, one by one, to a deep level of understanding, behaviour and, in the end, routine. Another way – the habit stacking way – is to organise these habits in a way which makes logical sense for the way your day works already and go micro-behaviour but a stack or cluster at a time.
“One way of changing behaviours is habit by habit, one by one.”
Paul Brewerton — YC Co Founder
So you start by looking at all the things you want to include and organising them sensibly and logically. You break down your day into chunks – say morning ritual, lunchtime, return home, evening. Then take the behaviours you want to introduce and habituate and stack them. For morning ritual and commute, that might look like:
Stack 1 – getting up and ready for work
— Wake up and drink a glass of water
— Take a vitamin pill
— Brush your teeth for 2 minutes
— Floss for 1 minute
Stack 2 – before/en route to work
— Eat a healthy breakfast
— Meditate before work
— Plan your priority tasks for the day
The clever, sticky habit-stacking bit is to use the brain’s desire to create short-cuts by associating clusters of activity with each other. So – have the glass of water next to your bed, then go straight to the bathroom, take the vitamin pill because you’ve put the vits next to your toothbrush, use a 2 minute buzz toothbrush to brush your teeth and make sure your floss is next to the vitamin jar. And repeat this routine, like this, for 4-6 weeks and that will be sufficient to associate these activities together…one behaviour will cue the next and the next and the next. And within 2 months, you’ll have built the routine sufficiently for the effort required to be much easier and the behaviours by that point will have been habituated. So the effort of using your pre-frontal cortex (where information processing is done) that burned a lot of energy at the start of creating the routine, has moved to a different part of the brain, where more automatic, habituated behaviours are stored. The effort is less, the tasks are easier and you are on your way to longer-lasting behavioural change.
A few tips to make this approach more likely to work for you, in addition to using a logical approach (so fitting it in to your day to day) and actually writing down the task list initially to make sure you don’t forget any part.
First tip: don’t try and do it all at once – focus on different areas of your day one at a time rather than expecting to habit stack every area of your day simultaneously.
Second tip: make sure you have a solid ‘anchor’ that you can stack habits around, something that you already do and which you can associate new behaviours with. So in our getting up and getting ready for work example, the anchor would be getting up and out of bed – you know you’re going to do that, so you stack the first new habit (drinking a glass of water) as soon after getting up as possible.
Third and last tip is to start small – if you want to introduce meditation into your day, don’t start with 40 minute total silence meditations, start with a 1 or 2 minute breathing exercise, that way you get your brain used to the new behaviour without making things too hard to habituate and stick with.
This second idea is more helpful for making more serious habits stick over the super long-term. The core idea comes from James Clear, another journalist and author of Atomic Habits. Incidentally, Clear’s general advice on habit-building is pretty consistent with Scott’s advice and both have a sound research basis.
Habit identification uses the well-established psychological principle of cognitive dissonance. This is the psychological and emotional discomfort you experience when something doesn’t sit right – when you’re behaving out of alignment with your values for example, or when you feel you’re being underpaid or under-appreciated for the work you do. Humans are motivated to create a state of psychological consonance and strive to achieve that either at the thinking level or at the behavioural level.
When you identify with a habit, that is, when you start to make a target habit part of your identity, it can help make it more difficult for you to move away from it once you’re on the habit-building journey. Meditation and running are good examples. When you start running, you’re likely to be thinking of yourself as someone who runs occasionally or who is experimenting with running as a form of exercise. But neither of these relate to identifying with the behaviour of running. So the sooner you start describing yourself as a runner (to yourself and others), the more likely you are to stick with the habit of running to avoid a state of cognitive dissonance (that is, feeling that something is out of whack because you say you’re a runner but you haven’t run for, say, 3 months).
Too soon and this may not work, but as soon as you can realistically describe yourself in a way which identifies you with the behaviour you want to habituate, Clear’s work suggests that you have a better chance of it sticking.