Life Hacks

What Is Habit Stacking & Why Does Your Brain Like It So Much?

A way to make spring cleaning manageable.

March  7, 2023
Photo by Rocky Luten

If you struggle to keep your dishwasher empty, counters scrubbed, or stovetop stain-free, habit stacking could solve your kitchen cleaning woes. A science-backed productivity hack, habit stacking can make spring cleaning (and life in general) much more manageable.

What is habit stacking?

Developed by self-help author S. J. Scott, habit stacking is a technique that helps you create new habits by taking advantage of existing ones. For instance, if you’d like to start scrubbing your counter nightly and you already load the dishwasher each night, you’d tell yourself that before you load any dishes, you must scrub your counters. So, as the name suggests, you are stacking a new habit onto an existing one.

Why Does It Work?

The process of attaching a new, desired habit to an existing daily action works because of a cognitive phenomenon called synaptic pruning. James Clear, author of The New York Times Best Seller, Atomic Habits, explains it best: “Synapses are connections between the neurons in your brain. The basic idea is that your brain prunes away connections between neurons that don’t get used and builds up connections that get used more frequently.” Meaning if you’re someone that has washed their face every morning since high school, then your brain will strengthen the connections between those face-cleaning neurons. At the same time, if you’ve never flossed, your brain has pruned away the connections between those teeth-cleaning neurons and assigned that energy towards other habits. To put it plainly, your brain makes it easier to do things you’re already doing. So, instead of trying to rewire your brain entirely, habit stacking leverages the power of your existing synapses to make adopting new habits less difficult.

How To Get Started

If you’d like to implement habit stacking in your life, there are a few steps to take before you get started. First, start small. Identify a new, specific habit you'd like to form—the new habit shouldn’t take more than five minutes to complete. Some examples include scrubbing your counter, writing a to-do list, drinking a glass of water, and texting a family member. Next, write down what you do everyday—this should include things like showering, brushing your teeth, looking at your phone, and getting into bed. Once you’ve compiled your list, select the activity that would be most convenient to stack your new habit on, and then get started.

Best Practices

Habit stacking works when both the new and existing habits are very specific. Avoid stacking a new habit during general actions like “while eating dinner” and instead choose an identifiable moment such as “before sitting down to eat” or “when dinner is over.” Also, make sure your new habit is clearly defined and capable of fitting into a five minute window. Instead of asking yourself to “clean the kitchen” choose a more specific action like “scrub the counter.”

Let us know how you will be using habit stacking in the comments below!
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Paul Hagopian

Written by: Paul Hagopian

Content @ Food52