We live in a world where it seems like everyone is doing the most. They’re getting their work done, they’re keeping their houses clean and they’re seeing their loved ones ― all while making time to practice self-care. Seeing others “mastering” balanced lives can feel defeating, particularly when you struggle to get through even two tasks on your to-do list.
Of course, sometimes doing nothing is productive, and we all know what we see on social media isn’t always a reflection of reality. But if you are struggling to make some time for yourself, you might just need to do some strategizing.
This is where “habit stacking” comes in, a term created by author SJ Scott in his 2014 book on the topic.
Habit stacking might seem like another kitschy self-improvement hack, but it may just be the mental trick that helps you stick to your quests long term. The strategy involves listing habits you already have ― such as walking the dog or driving to work ― that are already quite easy and routine for you, and attaching new self-care methods on top of them.
Ready to try it yourself? Here’s how to make sure your habit stacking sticks:
Start by picking a small new habit
This can include anything you are hoping to improve on. It should be a self-care technique that makes you feel good, but not necessarily something you always have time to do.
The key here is to start off as granular as possible. Say you want to get some movement in, but just writing “exercise” on your to-do list seems like a lofty goal. Instead, add a workout move you’re trying to master to the end of a habit you already do each day.
Diane Boden, host of the “Minimalist Moms” podcast and author of “Minimalist Moms: Living & Parenting With Simplicity,” practices this each morning by adding pushups after the habit of brushing her teeth.
“If I already practice one behavior, why not attach another to it? The connectivity makes all the difference in maintaining new habits you’d like to develop,” she said, noting that eventually your new habit will become second nature. “Can you get yourself to a point where the habits you desire to cultivate become reflexive?”
Write out a list of everyday habits you already do, then stack them together in a way that makes sense
Mentally roll through your normal routine and jot down the automatic behaviors you do each day, like Boden with brushing her teeth. Other options can include getting out of bed, brewing coffee, changing out of work clothes or getting into bed.
Listing these on paper will help you realize the long list of possibilities and find the area of your day that works best for you. For example, Allison Chawla, a psychotherapist in New York, recommended stacking sitting down to dinner with a gratitude moment.
Other potential combinations could be something like meditate for just one minute while brewing your coffee, doing a few yoga poses immediately after changing out of your work clothes or journaling for five minutes when you get into bed.
Boden prefers to stack habits in categories, such as combining two health and fitness habits. For example, you could drink a glass of water before and after your daily walk, improving your health habits in multiple ways.
Build up these combinations slowly for most success
The endgame here is for your brain to automatically associate one habit with another, so this won’t happen overnight.
And don’t try to do too much at once, either. Say you have multiple self-care habits you want to try, like journaling and meditating. What you should not do is string all these habits together or try all the combinations in one day — hence the “stacking.” Focus on making the journaling a daily routine before jumping to that and meditation.
Try not to get discouraged if it takes a long time. “It’s a lifestyle change, so people often don’t see the results they want because they are productive in one aspect but they lose that productivity in another way,” said Andre Pinesett, a physician and student productivity and performance coach.
Also keep in mind that multitasking, which research shows can be inefficient and counterproductive, is not habit stacking and is not helpful, Pinesett added. Instead of trying to do these habits at the same time (can you brush your teeth while doing a pushup?), use one as a cue for the next one to start.
Finally, make acknowledging your progress its own habit to stack
It’s essential to build in validation as its own habit as you succeed toward a greater goal of self-care. Take some time to acknowledge the work you did ― whether it be sticking to journaling before bed or your pushup after brushing your teeth. You can do this by writing it down, which often helps reinforce positive emotions.
Keep at it, and you’ll find it’s easier to prioritize yourself than you thought.