With the new year a full week under our belts, there’s likely a lot of us already falling short of achieving resolutions we created. Maybe it was a health related resolution and we’ve already skipped a workout or binged during a meal. Or maybe it was a “no drinking” resolution and we’ve already had a few drinks to unwind from the workday. Or maybe it was a resolution of writing more and we’ve yet to pick up the digital pen. If we haven’t fallen short of our resolutions yet, statistics tell us that we likely will soon.
Why do we jump on the same hamster wheel every year knowing we will wind up in the same place?
I don’t believe it’s for a lack of effort, and I honestly don’t believe it’s for a lack of willpower. Simply put, most of us have never been taught how to achieve goals or build habits, so instead we take our best guess at achieving them and throw our hands up in the air when that guess is wrong. The solution to this problem has been hiding in plain sight all along, and it’s called habit stacking. In a nutshell, habit stacking is exactly what you’d guess it is – stacking, or attaching, a new habit to an existing habit. Put another way, it’s taking something you already do out of habit everyday and adding something else to it. Simple as that.
There are a couple ways I like to think about habit stacking, the first being horizontal habit stacking and the second being vertical habit stacking. Both operate the same way but achieve different things.
HORIZONTAL HABIT STACKING
Horizontal habit stacking is when you stack a new and entirely different habit on top of an old existing habit. For example, the vast majority of us have been in the habit of brushing our teeth in the morning for most of our lives. This habit is second nature to us, and thus is the perfect place to stack a new habit on top of, say for example, taking a daily multivitamin.
Historically you may have purchased a bottle of multivitamins with full intention of taking them, then placed them in your cupboard and completely forgotten about them until weeks later when you stumble upon them again. Habit failed.
Now instead, with the process of habit stacking to operate from, you place the bottle of multivitamins next to your toothbrush. Each and every morning you see your new habit right in front of you, and it’s as simple as grabbing the bottle. Habit succeeded.
VERTICAL HABIT STACKING
Vertical habit stacking is similar in practice to horizontal habit stacking except that it’s focused on going deeper into a habit as opposed to creating a new one. Take, for example, a common resolution – waking up early each morning.
The usual resolution goes something like this. You approach that first week of the new year with full intention of waking up at 6am each morning. You’re used to waking up at 7:30am but this year will be different. So that first morning your alarm goes off at 6am and you promptly hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. If that scenario doesn’t play out the first morning it likely will soon. It simply is too dramatic of a habit shift to make at once. Habit failed.
Now instead, with the process of habit stacking to operate from, you set your alarm for 7:15am that first morning. And wouldn’t you know it, you successfully achieve it! After a week of this, you set your alarm for 7am, and wouldn’t you know it again, you are successful. This repeats each week until just a short six weeks later you are waking up at 6am each day. You’ve used the power of small changes applied consistently over time to your advantage, and because of it you’re successful in your resolution. Habit succeeded.
When it comes to resolutions and building new habits, first and foremost we need to allow ourselves some grace. We aren’t perfect, and we don’t need to hold ourselves to perfect standards. From there we need to realize that our previous failed resolutions have been from a lack of process not a lack of ability. When we implement the appropriate process, like habit stacking, we allow our ability the chance to succeed. Habits are not about reinventing the wheel. They’re about looking at the existing wheel, seeing what’s working, and improving upon that which is already working.
Rinse. And. Repeat.
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