The 9 Best Habit-Stacking Combos for Forming New Wellness Routines
You’ll be hitting your goals in no time.
By Jessie Van Amburg•
Generally speaking, humans like habits. Research shows that people who grew up with consistent daily routines are less likely to have attention or time management problems when they become adults. Reliable routines before bed can help us sleep better, while just the general structure a healthy routine provides can help lower your overall stress. So why is making a routine that’s actually good for you so dang hard—yet falling into a doom-scrolling spiral before bed every night so easy?
If you’re a person who struggles with creating healthy habits and routines (*raises hand*) then we have the hack for you to actually make your lifestyle changes stick: habit stacking.
What Is Habit Stacking?
Habit stacking is essentially exactly what it sounds like: taking a new habit and adding it to something you already do habitually. “We’re starting with something that is already a ritual, that doesn’t take a lot of conscious effort, and we’re trying to add something to it,” says Janice Castro, PhD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The term “habit stacking” was reportedly first coined by the writer S.J. Scott in his 2014 book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less, and has since been adopted by psychologists and productivity experts alike as a way to help people change their behaviors, make healthier choices, and more.
How Does Habit Stacking Work?
Habit stacking works by identifying a habit or a behavior you want to start doing and tacking it onto something you already do on the reg, says Lisette Sanchez, PhD, a licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness.
A simple habit-stacking formula can look something like: “Every time I do X (the existing part of my routine), I will then do Y (the new thing I want to add to my routine).” This equation works for a variety of different scenarios or goals.
For example, say you’ve just gotten a long lecture at the dentist’s office about how you need to floss more. Since you likely already brush your teeth twice a day, you can simply “stack” the new habit of flossing on top of your existing brushing habit. That means every time you brush your teeth, you’ll floss immediately afterward. Eventually, this will become one big dental health habit that you don’t have to think about—you’ll just automatically know to do it.
You might also be trying to start a new habit or routine that you know is good for you, but might need some extra motivation to stick with it. In that case, your habit stacking formula can be more about pairing something you need to do with something you want to do, Sanchez says. For example, maybe you want to be better about keeping your kitchen clean, so you set a goal to wash the dishes every single evening before bed. Unless you really love cleaning, you might need an incentive to do it. Here, your habit stack could be: “Every evening when I wash the dishes, I get to listen to my favorite podcast.” That podcast, which you already listen to anyway, now gets reserved exclusively for your post-dinner cleanup. “[The habit stack] becomes sort of like receiving a reward for this behavior that you didn't want to engage in [but need to],” Castro explains.
How to Start Habit Stacking
When thinking of what habits to stack, Castro recommends starting with things that are very simple (like brushing and flossing, or making coffee and meditating), and then gradually adding onto the stack or making adjustments as you go to perfect or expand upon the routine.
If you have a big overall goal—such as running your first-ever 5K—you can use habit stacking to divide up that goal into smaller, more manageable tasks to get it done, Castro says. That might start with taking a 10-minute walk around the neighborhood or on your Peloton Tread after dinner once a week. Then you can increase the frequency of that habit stack (after dinner two times a week, then five), the length of the walk itself, and/or the intensity of the exercise (maybe graduate to running and walking, then just running).
How Long Does Habit Stacking Take to Work?
Research is really mixed on this topic. Generally, there’s no clear consensus on exactly how long it takes to adopt a new habit (sorry!), in part because it really depends on the individual and the habit you’re trying to adopt. But it likely will take a bit longer than the traditional “21 days to form a habit” myth. Castro points to a 2012 study published in the British Journal of General Practice which notes that it can take about 10 weeks to turn new daily actions into habits. Another study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used machine learning to analyze habit formation behavior in people and found that it can take months to form a new gym habit.
The TL;DR: Give yourself a decent amount of time to learn a new habit, and stick with it.
Why Is Habit Stacking Effective?
Habit stacking works so well for people to help create new habits because it helps leverage our existing brain chemistry for good, Castro says. There are two key neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that tell your brain to do stuff) involved with habit formation. One is norepinephrine, which “helps us focus our attention and retrieve things from our memory,” she explains. The other is dopamine, which creates that feel-good reward sensation to help us stay motivated, she says.
By stacking a new habit on an existing habit (the point of habit stacking), Castro says you’re helping create new connections in your brain, fueled by both of these neurotransmitters firing during various parts of the habit stack.
For example, say you want to start meditating in the morning, and you know you always drink coffee in the morning. In this case, a good habit stack would be to first have your coffee, then immediately go into your meditation. When you wake up in the morning, norepinephrine is there to trigger your memory as you go into the kitchen, get out your mug, grind your beans, and make your brew. Smelling (and then sipping) your coffee triggers dopamine, which helps you feel good. That external trigger of the coffee would then remind you to go to the couch and meditate—spurring more norepinephrine to help you remember what comes next in the routine. Over time (and with consistent practice), this process becomes automatic and requires less thought and intention, Castro says.
This brain chemistry piece makes habit stacking particularly helpful for people with ADHD, Castro says. That’s because people with ADHD typically have issues with their brain reward systems, meaning they crave dopamine and really need rewards and incentives to get tasks done.
Sanchez adds that habit stacking is also a great example of behavioral conditioning, aka shaping or changing your behavior with incentives. “Every time you do this one thing, you will want to do the other,” she says. “This is very powerful when we’re trying to build new routines or new healthy habits.”
The other perk of habit stacking, Sanchez says, is that once it becomes routine, it really cuts down on decision fatigue—the mental exhaustion that comes from having to constantly make decisions. “A natural, positive consequence of when you have built these routines is you might find yourself feeling like, Well, I'm doing more but somehow I feel like I have more time,” she says. “But you have more time because you're probably not having to think so much about these smaller habits that you're doing in your day-to-day. So then your mind space is freed up.”
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Habit-Stacking Combos for Forming New Wellness Routines
Important caveat here before we dive in: The kinds of habits you choose to stack really depend on your existing routine, your particular health and wellness goals, and what sorts of things motivate or work for you, say both Castro and Sanchez. A habit stack that might work for a marathon runner, for example, might not be something for someone who is trying to foster a new running habit; someone who commutes to work everyday might have different constraints on their routine than someone who is WFH.
That said, we asked the pros for some habit-stacking examples that might be helpful for people to consider (or tweak, based on their goals) if they’re trying to make new fitness, health, or wellness goals. Here are some ideas to get you started with making your own habit stacks:
1. Get Out of Bed + Make Your Bed
If you’re the kind of person who gets stressed out by mess or clutter—or who can’t fall asleep in a messy room—making your bed first thing in the AM is a great way to make a small, tangible improvement to your sleep routine, suggests Sanchez.
2. Drink Your Morning Coffee + Meditate
If you’ve been looking for more mindfulness in your day but struggle to carve out the time or motivation to meditate, Sanchez recommends this calming habit stack combo. Grab your morning beverage of choice (whether that’s coffee, tea, or hot lemon with water), which you likely already have every day, and then immediately take it into another room for a meditation exercise. With enough time, you’ll fall into that routine automatically—but in the meantime, the smell of the coffee in your hand, or the ritual of making it, will cue you to the next step in your habit stack.
3. Get Dressed for the Day + Lay Out Your Workout Clothes
This is a habit stack similar in spirit to the bed-making stack above, in that your morning self is setting up your later-in-the-day self for success. Laying out your exercise clothes and gear (or packing them right into your gym bag) while you’re already getting dressed for the day makes it that much easier to stick with an exercise goal. That’s because you’re taking one less step out of the equation (what you’ll wear to work out) when you’re tired later in the day.
4. Go on a Walk + Call Your BFF
Trying to get more steps in when you’re WFH? Scheduling a daily walk can be a good place to start. Stack it with something enjoyable you already habitually do, like catching up with your long-distance bestie. Getting another person involved in your habit, even if they’re not physically present, is called “body doubling,” Sanchez says—and can be great for getting stuff done. “If someone’s just there with you, even if they’re not doing the task with you, it can help you feel more motivated to get it done,” she explains. (She says this also works well with chores that you might otherwise not feel like doing, such as washing the dishes or folding laundry.)
5. Take Your Lunch Break + Do a Quick Yoga Flow
Making a habit stack out of something you do every single day is a great way to be consistent about a new, healthy behavior because it’s that much harder to forget. For folks looking to get more movement breaks in the day, or who want to add more mindfulness to their routines, tack on a quick yoga class right after you eat lunch to get your head back in the game before resuming work. (The Peloton App offers yoga classes that are anywhere from five to 75 minutes long!)
6. Get Home from Work + Put on Your Workout Shoes
This habit-stacking combo can help make post-work workouts a more seamless part of your routine. If you put on your running shoes (or your exercise clothes, or whatever you need to wear) right after you get home instead of immediately flopping down on the couch, it’ll feel a lot easier to make a workout happen.
7. Do Your Workout Cooldown + Foam Roll Your Muscles
Bad about remembering to foam roll—then pay for it in soreness the next day? Turn it into a habit stack by tacking it onto the end of your normal cooldown routine. Even better if you store your foam roller near your weights or yoga mat so you don’t forget. (Of course, while foam rolling is generally safe, check in with your doctor to make sure the habit is recommended for you.)
8. Drink a Cup of Herbal Tea + Brush Your Teeth
Want to infuse your bedtime routine with more relaxation and sleep-enhancing benefits? Try this habit-stacking suggestion from Sanchez and brew up a cup of herbal tea (like chamomile, which has some mild relaxing and sedative properties) before you start getting ready for bed.
9. Get in Bed + Turn on a Sleep Meditation
For people looking to improve their snooze quality who specifically struggle to fall asleep, you can’t go wrong with a sleep meditation. These soothing meditations may help send you off into dreamland faster, quiet a busy mind, improve brain health, and potentially even help fight insomnia, per the Cleveland Clinic. A habit stack focused on better, faster Zzzs, then, could be crawling into bed followed by turning on a sleep meditation.
If you’re looking for a quick way to jumpstart your new healthy habits, habit stacking can be a useful tool to help you get there. Just combine something you already do with something you want or need to do, then rinse and repeat with consistency. Before long, you’ll have a new routine that’s truly optimized for your benefit.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.