January 9, 2019

Discover the Potential of Habit Stacking

I received an email last week about New Year’s resolutions that briefly discussed habit anchors.* This was at the same time I was doing my year end review, and when I thought about the habits that stuck, I realized most of them were because of anchoring/stacking.

what is habit stacking?

Habit anchoring (or habit stacking) is nothing more than mentally attaching a new habit to another routine activity. If you happen to be a coffee lover with a tendency to kill plants, you might tie your new habit (water dying plants) to your morning routine (make delicious coffee). I like to use if-then statements:

IF I put water in the kettle,
THEN I’ll put water in the plants.

The most successful habit I developed last year was a daily bullet journal recording session at the end of every day. I’ve been bullet journaling for a little over 2 years (2019 will be my third full notebook), so this wasn’t exactly a new habit, but the preciseness of it was. Previously I tracked how often I journaled to keep myself on task. Last year I quit tracking because I didn’t need to. My habit anchor:

IF the kid has been put to bed,
THEN I will head to my studio for end of day review and journaling.

Reading that here it sounds too simple, but the habit anchor above is the sole reason this activity became second nature. My studio is my happy place and the only area I get actual alone time. If I can just get there with the journal in hand and sit down, the rest takes care of itself.

It became apparent just how important this habit anchor was when we went on vacation in November. I didn’t journal at all because, well, I was on vacation. I lost momentum on journaling entirely, and was never quite able to make it back up in December. To be fair, December is like the seasonal version of senioritis, but I still would have liked to finish the year strong.

a real life example

For a super clear idea of how this works, we’ll use an in-progress example for 2019. A habit I’m wanting to develop this year is writing consistently. So we’ll use write consistently to develop a 5 step process.

  1. Identify the habit you want to develop. Write something, consistently. Essays/thought pieces, to be more specific. Whatever needs to get out of my head that week.
  2. Ask why the habit is important to you.*
    a) Writing is free therapy. My brain runs a million miles an hour musing about every fathomable topic that isn’t sports or politics. Writing forces you to think about the best way to communicate concepts and ideas, and you begin to understand them better in the process.
    b) I read nonfiction because I want to be challenged; to think about things in a new way, from a new angle. When I write, I’m thinking about how to make people think or provide practical tools.
  3. Identify obstacles and ask if the habit is realistic. I spend way too much time on things. Being a highly excitable/distractible recovering perfectionist who prefers to take the raw thought straight to the cutting saw and polish until it’s a gem worthy of a word museum is not helpful. But let’s return to my why: I write because it’s cathartic. To communicate ideas that will make people think. I’m not getting paid for this, and I’m not writing the next Great American Novel. With that in mind, lower expectations and short, simple posts would make this habit realistic. (Also maybe a limit on how many times I can edit).
  4. Determine how often to work on the habit and where to fit that time. We tend to mentally exaggerate what we can do over long periods of time, and underestimate how much can be accomplished with small habits completed consistently. If I make writing a short daily habit, that’s a much better option than trying to find a 3 hour block of time once a week. I’d like to fit that in when it’s quiet and the kid’s in bed.
  5. Find something in your normal routine that you can use as a habit anchor. What’s something I do every day in the evening? I just mentioned the nightly bullet journal habit. That’s every night, when the kid’s in bed, which is when I want to do this. So there’s my habit anchor.IF I finish bullet journaling and it’s before 9 PM,
    THEN I will spend 30 minutes writing something.

It‘s even better to have a completion goal/deadline. If I cap my edits at 3 rounds (3 days) I could feasibly post once a week. That’s pretty audacious, and because of my why, I know it isn’t super important to even post these here; it’s just a public accountability thing as additional motivation. I just want to start writing consistently and see what happens, so I’m going to leave this open-ended.

What’s interesting is I think post on Medium once a month was a goal I wanted to have last year. I didn’t write the entire year. Why? Because I didn’t have a system.

If something truly matters to you, develop a realistic system for achieving it.

it’s science

An important thing to keep in mind with all this is to test, test, test. Don’t spend an hour typing up a beautiful routine chart with every minute accounted for — it will never work the way you think (particularly if you have children). Instead, just identify your habit and rough out a loose timeline for the small block of time where you plan to work on it. Then iterate and improve on it until you find something that works. If you approach it like a scientist running experiments, you’ll be much more forgiving on yourself.

If any of these days don’t go as planned (did I mention the unpredictability present in a home with at least one toddler?)… So what? I’ve got the next day. Or I experiment with a morning schedule. Whatever. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one actually knows what they’re doing.

how’s it going?

I’m definitely going to have to work on only spending 30 minutes per night. Gimme a break… I’m excited to be writing again (I also wanted to see how quickly I could create a post at a fairly leisurely writing pace). I also think I need to cap it at 2 edits or take more time between edit 2 and 3 (the third time through is when I tend to over-edit).

Daily breakdown: the evening of January 7, 2018, I spent an hour on the shitty first draft. On January 8, I spent just over an hour on the first edit — drastic/structural revisions. On January 9, I spent an hour on the second edit to clarify a few things, write a headline and work on formatting. I just spent a little over an hour creating graphics, proofreading, and hitting publish, which means as of January 10 I’m already tied with my one non-post last year.

Here’s to 2019.


  • Semantics — A quick google revealed “anchor habit” as the dominant phrase, but I prefer “habit anchor” because the emphasis is on the habit you’re developing. James Clear calls it habit stacking, which is even better.
  • Make art — I’ll actually be alternating between writing and painting in the evenings.
  • Step 2 — Motivation is important for habit development, but also because it can clarify deeper truths about yourself. If Gertrude’s goal is “post every day on Instagram” and her why is because she wants more likes/followers, she needs to dig another layer deep and ask herself WHY she wants more likes or followers. If it’s because she only feels valuable when receiving outside validation, her new habit might need to be “Delete Instagram.” However, if her goal is to be noticed by the Worldwide Quilting Guild so she can receive an exclusive invitation to their annual quilt-a-thon… by all means download that social media scheduling plan.

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