Stack your habits

The strategy takes (almost) all the challenge out of creating new ones.

The easiest way to adopt healthy habits is to stack them on top of old ones. You don't need to make a huge commitment to reap the rewards: Some practices may seem negligible when you look at them in isolated instances, like applying sunscreen once or meditating for five minutes, but their benefits add up if you do them consistently. “Real change is often the culmination of a lot of small changes over time,” says Matt Berenc, CSCS, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in Beverly Hills.

No matter how straightforward the habit you’re trying to adopt is, challenges often stand in the way. First, it takes a lot of conscious effort. Second, people tend to take on more than they can handle. “If you set out to do too much, too soon, all that newness can overwhelm you and your efforts will end up petering out pretty quickly,” Berenc explains. Finally, goals that lack specificity are unlikely to drive behavior change.

Whether you hope to move, sleep, or read more, you can overcome the obstacles through habit stacking. “It’s the opportunity to pair a new habit with one that’s already established, that you already do without any additional thought,” he says.

Below, Berenc lays out step-by-step instructions on how to make new habits permanent fixtures in your life.

Define your goals.
The first step in habit stacking is creating a concrete objective. “A lot of people will say, ‘I’m going to be healthier,’ but that’s a very nebulous statement,” he says. “You have to be specific about your goal and what you have to do to reach it.” Instead of vowing to move more, set out to do 20 extra push-ups per day. Don’t just plan to be more mindful—aim to meditate for five minutes each night. To avoid burnout, focus on one goal at a time rather than several, Berenc notes.

Identify rituals.
In the early stages of adopting a new habit, you might have to set an alarm or leave a note on the table to remind yourself. But rituals that you do every day are so ingrained in your routine that you don’t even think twice about them. Berenc suggests you take a day or two to identify all these rituals, like brushing your teeth, showering, brewing your coffee, or walking your dog, and write them down.

Stack your habit on top of a non-competing ritual.
Now, you need to pair your new habit with a ritual that you can do either in unison or one after the other. When Berenc wanted to do move more, he achieved that by doing 10 squats every time he brushed his teeth. If you're trying to apply sunscreen before heading out each morning, you can do it while your coffee brews or after putting on your shoes.

Make it easy to implement.
“When you’re stacking habits, try to create an environment that supports the process,” Berenc says. That could mean setting a morning alarm that tells you to do your push-ups, keeping your mala beads bedside to remind you to meditate, or leaving your bottle of SPF next to your coffee machine.

Assess your progress and adjust accordingly.
The last step is to reflect on how well you’ve done at normalizing your new habit. “If it came easily, you’ll want to know why so you can apply that strategy to other habits,” Berenc says. “If you were challenged, it’s equally important to know what you can change to make yourself more successful.”

If you notice your new habit is becoming more of a subconscious event in your daily life, that’s your opportunity to take on something new. “The aggregation of all of these small habits create a large impact on your life,” he says. “Don't look at the isolated instance of doing 10 squats, but how they build up over time.”

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