Habit Stacking: How To Train Your Brain With Routine

Get stuff done by grouping together small tasks into pattern chains

Most Popular
  • This behavioural science strategy turns your nagging to-do list into unconscious acts
  • As we age we prune the synapses for behaviour we don't use and strengthen those we do
  • Habit stacking uses those strong connections to create new habits

Habit stacking uses those strong connections to create new habits"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." — Aristotle

Nice words from the old guy, but try putting that into practise at 8am when you're hitting snooze or watching the lashing rain from your desk at 5pm and firmly parking any plans for a run.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But what if the small, niggling tasks that linger on your to-do list became a habit as natural as brushing your teeth or putting your socks on? Well, where can we sign up?

The phrase 'habit stacking' was coined by Wall Street Journal bestselling author S.J Scott. His 2014 book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less proposes you, "build routines around habits that don't require effort" because "small wins build momentum because they're easy to remember and complete."

Also termed 'habit chaining', the process involves grouping together small activities into a routine which you link to a habit already set in your day. This makes the routine memorable and anchors your new habits to an existing trigger. Or in simpler terms: use the things you already remember to do to remind you to do something else, like reading one chapter of a book when you get into bed.

The strategy works by eliminating procrastination and instead making a practical routine out of the things we put off. Never remember to floss? Work it into your existing habits by flossing right before brushing your teeth. Assuming you're remembering to do that one that is...

2007 research by Oxford University found that when compared to newborn babies, the average adult human had 41 per cent fewer neurons in the brain. This doesn't mean you're stupider than a baby, it just means adults go through a process called synapse pruning. Behavioural psychologist James Clear explains that, "Your brain prunes away connections between neurons that don't get used and builds up connections that get used more frequently."

"Synaptic pruning occurs with every habit you build as your brain builds a strong network of neurons to support your current behaviours. The more you do something, the stronger and more efficient the connection becomes." Clear argues you can take advantage of the "very strong habits and connections that you take for granted each day" to build new habits.

If that sounds daunting, try breaking down tasks into five minute chunks, this means you can complete multiple tasks every day, and across the week these add up to a half an hour. A morning habit chain might look like this:

  • Wake up
  • 5 minutes of meditation
  • Take vitamins
  • 5 Minutes of abdominal exercises
  • Brush teeth
  • Floss
  • Make breakfast
  • Empty laundry bin into washing machine
  • Call mother on walk to tube

You get the picture.

And if you aren't a morning bird, don't worry - it doesn't need to be a list you master first thing. Scott recommends creating stacks for the last few minutes at work to set you up for the next morning, or compiling a 20 minute chain as you arrive home to tick things off like meal planning or sorting your wardrobe.

He even suggests making an exercise stack like which will give you a condensed and efficient workout, making the idea of exercising less daunting. Committing to a half an hour run might seem impossible but 20 minutes to get five things done isn't.

Research shows it only takes between 21 and 40 days to develop a habit, so what may look like a jumbled and unachievable list now could be your morning routine in three weeks time. Just ask Aristotle.