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Want to build better habits that will help your career? Find out more about habit stacking, a technique that mixes neuroscience with logic to build new habits in the shell of old ones.
Old habits are hard to get rid of, and new habits are hard to create. But what if you could use the old to make the new? To boost their productivity, more and more business professionals are using “habit stacking,” a technique that exploits the way neurons in the human brain form connections and remember past behaviors. Finding out everything to know about habit stacking won’t just help in your career; it’ll improve your memory, your focus, and other parts of your life.
To understand habit stacking and how to apply it as a habit-forming technique, we explore the following topics:
How habit stacking works
The benefits of habit stacking
How to find old habits you can stack
Good habits to build with habit stacking
Setting up timelines for habit forming
When you’re a kid, habits are easy to form and get rid of: the neurons in your growing brain have fewer existing connections and form new connections more quickly. As you grow older, the elasticity of your brain changes. Rarely accessed memories and behaviors get forgotten, while memories and behaviors that come up a lot are deeply ingrained in your mind.
The adult brain’s tendency to get “set in its ways” can be a mixed blessing. You’re more likely to keep good habits you already have, but you’ll also tend to hang on to bad habits of yours as well. You might even struggle to build the new habits you’ll need to achieve your career goals— habits such as checking your schedule, showing up on time, or proofreading your work.
This is where habit stacking comes in, a mental technique that works something like this:
Identify a routine or behavior that you want to make into a habit. Checking your email every morning, getting to bed earlier, planning out your schedule for the day, etc.
Pick a useful, pre-existing habit of yours. Making coffee in the morning, smelling flowers, putting on your clothes, etc.
Combine the old and new habits in your daily life. Going for a jog after having breakfast, checking your email after updating your social media profile, preparing a to-do list after your morning stretches, going to bed right after brushing your teeth, etc.
Rather than spending hours memorizing new routines or punishing yourself when you backslide into bad habits, habit stacking uses your existing routines as a foundation for your new ones. By mentally linking your old habits with your new behavior goal, you’re more likely to remember your new routines and turn them into genuine habits.
Building new habits with this “stacking” technique also costs less mental energy than other habit-forming techniques. This frees your mind to focus on big responsibilities, such as caring for your family, completing big projects, or planning for the future. Outside of making career decisions, habit stacking might even give you extra free time for hobbies, self-improvement, or just hanging out with friends.
According to this American Psychological Association article, 43% of a person’s daily actions are habits rather than conscious decisions. Often, these habits are triggered by cues or routines in a person’s daily life - meaning that disrupting or changing these routines is a reliable way to break out of bad old habits and make new choices.
Every person has their own blend of good existing habits, persistent bad habits, and good habits they wish they had. Because of that, there’s no single, universal procedure for building new habits with the habit stacking technique. Finding the right old habits to “stack” your new habits onto takes a bit of personal research, experimentation, and a bit of common sense.
First, make a list of good or neutral habits that already exist in your everyday life. Sort them into habits you do every morning, every afternoon, every evening, every other day, every week, and so on. Next, make a list of new, healthy habits that you want to form, and how often you want to perform each habit.
Sample good habits and timeframes:
Leaving home for work at 8 a.m. sharp.
Checking your phone for messages every morning.
Asking your coworkers how they’re doing every lunch break.
Washing a load of laundry every Friday.
Updating a journal every evening with notes about what you got done that day.
Completing projects at least three days before their deadlines.
Finally, try to “stack” the new habits you want to build on top of old habits with matching time frames. If you want to check your phone for messages every morning, for example, stack that on top of another morning routine such as making coffee.
To get the most out of habit stacking, make sure each new “stack” you come up with is simple and realistic. “After eating breakfast, I’ll run outside for fifteen minutes,” for instance, is a stack you can pull off most days without worrying about specific start times or other tasks later in the day. So is “check your email the moment you realize the sun has set.”
If you’re interested in habit stacking as a way to succeed at a new job or improve at an old job, start by thinking back on the past month of work you’ve done (or the past month you spent searching for a new job). Make a list of times when you made mistakes, showed up late, struggled with an assignment, got stressed out, displeased a colleague, or failed to seize an opportunity. Painful it is to think about them, cataloging your setbacks shows you ways to improve your work (and shows what you have been doing right).
Next, make a list of useful work habits you’d like to add to your daily routine or do more consistently. Once you’ve got this list, pair specific problems in your current work style with the good habits that would solve those issues.
To learn more about ways to take control of your career, check out Career.io’s First 90-Day Plan, a guide on how to set yourself up for success in the first three months at your new job.
Habit stacking is a mental tool that lets you build new, healthier habits and behaviors in your daily life.
Habit stacking exploits the way human brains remember past actions and form new routines. By linking the habit you want to form to one of your old habits, you’ll remember your new routine more often and struggle less to repeat it.
To habit stack effectively, you need to pick a new habit that’s straightforward and tie it to an old habit that comes up on a daily basis (meals, exercises, etc.).
As far as careers go, habit stacking can help you show up to work early, manage your time better, make more long-term plans, and remember to touch base with your co-workers more.