9 min read

How Habit Stacking Tricks Your Mind Into Starting New Habits

Have you ever been so motivated to start a new habit, but when it came down to it, you just couldn’t keep it up? Maybe you succeeded for a few days, and then it just kind of, well, fizzled out? This is a common occurrence. People get excited and filled with lofty goals but then seem unable to achieve any real significant change. Don’t let this deflate your enthusiasm. Goal setting can change your life, and there must be an easier way, right?

Enter habit stacking. A surprisingly simple way to accomplish your goals, one little step at a time. 

What Is Habit Stacking?

Habit stacking is consciously pairing a new habit or goal with an already existing habit, which links the two actions to become an integrated part of your routine. This way, you can minimize the effort it takes to remember to do this new activity and easily carve out the time it takes to complete the new habit you are trying to instill.

Although this term was first coined by author S.J. Scott, habit stacking has been popularized by James Clear, an author, and entrepreneur who has made forming productive habits his life’s work. You may have also read about habit stacking in our interview with Al Goldman, the creative brand manager of Essential elements®. She has this down to a science. With her morning routine, she accomplishes more than most people do in an entire day. For example, while she sits in her sauna each morning, she meditates, journals, and reads a book, all while taking advantage of the health benefits a good sauna session can provide.

How Does Habit Stacking Work?

Habit stacking takes advantage of the way our brain works to establish routine activities through something called synaptic pruning. From the time of birth onward, our brains establish many new neural pathways as we learn how to become functional humans. As we learn to walk, talk, read, etc., these pathways are established and strengthened. As we age, many of these pathways become no longer necessary, so our brains start “pruning” or eliminating the unnecessary pathways and prioritizing the neural networks that are the most useful in our current lives. 

small habits

Starting a whole new habit requires creating a new neural pathway, so by stacking habits onto already existing ones, we can acquire new habits with less rewiring to the brain. Over time, those neural networks are also strengthened, and it becomes a part of your ordinary day-to-day routine.

How to Habit Stack

The best way to start with habit stacking is to begin with small changes and work up from there. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to almost a year to develop a new habit, but on average, it takes 66 days to make a new habit become routine. Decide on the new habit to begin with and 

identify already existing habits that can be built upon, such as making coffee or brushing your teeth. This will help help you get a sense of what new habits can be paired together.

You may need a reminder at first to remember the new activity, but soon it will become automatic. You can set the alarm on your phone or post sticky notes in noticeable places. You can also create a daily checklist that helps you achieve simple, repeatable routines throughout your day. 

Tips for Maximizing Habit Stacking

Be Specific

Rather than say to yourself, you will start working out sometime soon, lay out a detailed plan. Maybe you will do 10 push-ups and 5 pull-ups to start, 3 days a week, and then expand from there. Having a vague goal will get you vague results. The neural wiring in your brain will respond better to very specific instructions that are paired with a specific existing habit.

woman building habits using an app

Be Simple

By simplifying new goals into tiny habits that don’t take a lot of time and are not complicated, you will be preparing yourself for success. For example, if your overall goal is to “take better care of yourself,” and that includes a long list of things you want to change, simplify it into small steps that can be easily implemented into your already existing routine. Maybe after brushing your teeth, you can start taking a few supplements. Or, every morning, you can meditate while your coffee brews. All of these little things will add up, but starting with one thing at a time will make it easier to make these into long-term habits that really stick. 


The best way to build new habits is to start with small, achievable actions and then work up from there. It’s ok to have big, life-changing goals, but taking them step by step is most effective. Sometimes you can’t complete the exact action you are trying for, so it is ok to work on building smaller but similar practices that will help you get to where you are trying to go. For example, maybe you want to run a marathon. You’ve got to start where you are. You must first establish the habit of running every day or several times a week. Once that becomes a routine habit, then you can work on increasing your endurance and setting achievable goals that develop your athletic abilities.


Small habits that fit well together are easier to stack when they are similar to each other. Perhaps you would like to start reading more books but haven’t quite found the time to do it. If you stack reading a few pages of your chosen book onto time usually spent scrolling on social media, these two things are so similar they can easily be stacked. Instead of spending 15 minutes scrolling on your phone, you could shorten it to 5 minutes (set a timer!) and then use the other 10 minutes to read a good book. Once our brain shifts into a certain “mode,” it becomes easier to perform similar tasks or activities that are related. 

What Are Some Examples of Habit Stacking?

Now that you understand how habit stacking works, here are a few examples to get you started. As a reminder, take it step by step and add new habits a little at a time.

Morning Habit Stacking Routine

(Usual habit) wake up
(Stacked habit) stretch for 5-10 minutes 
(Secondary stacked habit) go outside for 3-5 minutes of sunshine

(Usual habit) make coffee
(Stacked habit) fill your water bottle for the day so you can stay hydrated
(Secondary stacked habit) pack a healthy lunch

meal planning

Nighttime Habit Stacking Routine

(Usual habit) eat dinner 
(Stacked habit) wash dinner dishes along with your water bottle, so it’s clean for the next day
(Secondary stacked habit) plan meals for the next 2 days and create a shopping list if necessary

Exercise Habit Stacking Routine

(Usual habit) listen to a true crime podcast
(Stacked habit) do 10 crunches and 5 pull-ups while listening 
(Secondary stacked habit) add 20 push-ups and 15 lunges

Some of these may seem like mini-habits, and that’s the point. Setting yourself up for success for the day ahead can be as simple as refilling your water bottle. You can use habit stacking to create healthy life changes, keep your finances in balance, and even keep your home organized. Linking new tasks to an action or activity you do every day without even thinking or planning will bring about small changes that add up in big ways. 

The Essential element

Rather than overwhelm your body and brain with tremendous goals that are difficult to achieve, make the life you want by taking it one step at a time. Help your New Year’s resolutions stick by creating specific, stackable, actionable goals that can be integrated into your daily routine. At Essential elements®, we get to see people make their lives better every day, and we provide products and educational resources that support healthy lifestyle changes. This is a result of dreaming big and setting monumental goals, but every adventure has to start somewhere. Let yourself reach your full potential with effective habits that develop your skills and lifestyle so you can stay empowered and motivated to accomplish your ambitions, no matter the size.

How Habit Stacking Tricks Your Mind Into Starting New Habits