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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

How to Create New Habits by Leveraging Old Ones Through Habit Stacking

Updated: Apr 14

By Patty Laushman

We’re all creatures of habit, and we tend to do things the same way day after day. But what if you want to break out of your routine and create a new habit? Often if we can come up with a plan, we struggle mightily to execute the plan. New Year's resolutions anyone? This is where habit stacking can be helpful.

Habit stacking is a method of reducing the friction of creating a new habit and increasing chances for success by leveraging what you are already doing without effort. This means that instead of starting from scratch, you can leverage existing habits to help form new ones.

Read on to learn how it works...

Man's hand building a stack of wood blocks in front of orange background with the words how to build good habits

What is Habit Stacking?

Habit stacking is a technique that helps you form new habits by “stacking” them on top of existing ones. The idea is that if you make a new habit part of an existing routine, it will be easier to stick with it because you won't have to break out of your regular routine to do it.

For example, if you already brush your teeth every morning, you could stack the habit of flossing onto that routine. Strategically place the flossing instrument next to your toothbrush, and as soon as you finish brushing, pick up the floss and start flossing.

Here are the steps for habit stacking:

  1. Identify the first step in a new habit you want to create, like taking medicine at the same time every day, brushing teeth, sitting down to study, or starting to do pushups to get more active.

  2. Then identify one or more things you already do regularly, like waking up, eating breakfast, making coffee, or checking social media.

  3. Finally, plan for how and when this new action will become part of your daily routine. Be really specific.

For example, you could habit stack taking medicine to finishing your oatmeal in the morning by placing your pill sorter near the chair where you eat breakfast.

If brushing your teeth is a challenge, place a pre-pasted disposable toothbrush there too.

If you struggle to sit down to study, habit stack this to finishing breakfast or whatever the first thing you do in the morning is (after any stimulant medicine kicks in if you take it).

If you want to start doing pushups, try habit stacking this with your feet hitting the floor when you first wake up.

This process makes it easier to add new habits because it removes the barrier of planning when to do the new habit and the need to initiate the task from scratch, removing a whole lot of friction from creating the new habit. You don't have to think about when or how often you need to do something – you just know that every time you do X (e.g., brush your teeth), then you do Y (floss).

Benefits of Habit Stacking

The benefits of habit stacking are numerous: it reduces the amount of effort required to form a new habit; makes forming new habits less intimidating; helps us stay consistent; encourages us to focus on one task at a time; and helps us build momentum over time as we start forming multiple habits at once.

Here are a few more benefits.

It Relies on Brain Power and Momentum That Already Exists

Habit stacking relies on brain power and momentum that already exists within an individual with autism or ADHD; instead of introducing new habits from scratch, it builds upon existing skills and experiences.

It Gives You a Built-in Reminder

Habit stacking creates a built-in reminder system for neurodivergent individuals who often need assistance remembering important tasks or appointments. And breaking down large goals into smaller chunks makes them easier to remember and track in the long run.

Habit Stacking Makes Changes Less Overwhelming

By dividing large tasks into smaller chunks, habit stacking takes away some of the overwhelm associated with making major changes in someone’s life. This allows individuals to focus on one small change at a time while still feeling as though they are making progress towards bigger goals.

For people with autism, the predictability found in routines and habits can be calming and essential for productivity. Cultivating new habits, particularly through the digestible process of habit stacking, is a great way to add more predictability to your life.

Can Help With Many Challenges Related to Autism or ADHD

Finally, habit stacking can help with many challenges related to autism or ADHD such as focusing, organization, commitment, prioritization, memory recall, managing emotions, and reducing stress levels.

How to Leverage Existing Habits to Create New Ones Through Habit Stacking

Habits are powerful things. They shape our days and can be used to create positive, lasting changes in our lives. But sometimes it can be difficult to start new habits and stick with them. That’s where habit stacking comes in – a simple but effective way of creating new habits by leveraging existing ones.

Here's a guide to help you introduce habit stacking into your life in a seamless and effective way.

Evaluate Current Habits to Determine the Habit You'd Like to Add

The first step in using habit stacking is to assess your current routine and determine which behaviors you’d like to add. It’s important to choose something that will give you tangible results and move you closer toward your goal to help keep you motivated. Maybe it’s getting started on report writing or taking your medication more regularly.

Whatever it is, decide on one behavior that will help get you closer to where you want to be.

For example, I had a client who wanted help decluttering her home. We talked about a system for getting stuff organized, but she was struggling with the execution. She couldn't make herself start the process.

She would come home from work and want to start cleaning, but she'd take off her shoes, plop down on the couch, and be completely unable to get up and get started. And when she did get started, the sensory experience of stepping on things on the floor was so unpleasant, she wanted to quit.

Then we added habit stacking to the mix. We knew she was coming home every day after work. That happened automatically without her having to expend new energy. We decided to stack getting started with cleaning onto coming home from work.

This was her new routine:

  1. DO NOT sit down when I get home from work!

  2. DO NOT take off my shoes!

  3. Before I start my cleaning session, I will get a drink, have a snack, and use the bathroom.

  4. Turn off notifications on my phone.

  5. Turn on audio entertainment.

  6. I will clean one hour using the Pomodoro method: Set timer for 25 minutes. When it goes off, I get a five-minute break to do phone puzzles; then repeat.

  7. Presort items into piles by location.

  8. Get a bigger bucket and use this to transport presorted items to their locations and put them away if they have a place.

It was a great success. She was very motivated to get her home uncluttered; she was just struggling with how to start the process we created. Habit stacking got her over the hump.

Start Small

When you’re tackling any new task or goal, it’s important to start small. Breaking down your goals into smaller achievable parts is key for any successful habit stacker—especially if you are on the autism spectrum or have ADHD.

It’s best not to overwhelm yourself with too much too soon; instead focus on setting small daily goals that you can easily achieve. This will help build confidence and make you more likely to stick with your plan in the long run.

Start By Finding the Right Trigger by Brainstorming Your Current Habits

Once you have determined your desired behavior, the next step is finding the right trigger. This involves brainstorming all of your current daily habits and deciding which one would be most effective as a trigger for your new habit. For example, if your goal is drinking more water each day, then drinking a full glass of water immediately after getting up in the morning might work since getting out of bed is already part of your daily routine. You can reduce even more friction by getting the glass of water ready the night before!

Make Sure Your Cues Are Extremely Specific and Actionable

Now it’s time to make sure that your cues are specific and actionable. This means ensuring that they are clear enough so that there is no confusion as to what needs to happen when they are triggered. For example, instead of saying “drink water every day," say “I will drink 16 ounces of water immediately after I wake up in the morning." This specificity will ensure that there is no ambiguity about what you need to do when the cue happens.

Give Yourself a Timeline

a one month calendar with red pushpins spaced throughout the month with the last day circled in red

When creating a new habit it's important to set yourself up for success by setting realistic timelines for completion of each goal or task related to this habit-stacking process.

Setting deadlines helps keep us motivated by providing short-term goals we can work toward and also long-term objectives we can strive for. Make sure these deadlines are achievable yet still challenging enough to push us out of our comfort zone.

For example, you could say, "I will spend one hour decluttering my home three days over the next week."

Get Organized

Getting organized and planning out what tasks you want to add into your routine is essential. Start by breaking down your goal into smaller steps so that it’s easier for you to track and measure progress. Make sure that these steps are achievable and reasonable, as this will help motivate you further down the line when it comes time to actually do them.

Create Accountability by Telling Others

Black man in an orange sweatshirt against an orange background with a megaphone sharing his goals with others

Sharing our goals with others creates an additional source of accountability that can help us stay motivated when the going gets tough and the inevitable setback occurs. Also, having people who support us along this path can provide invaluable encouragement, advice, and resources, which enable us to become successful in reaching our desired outcome.

Don't Overdo It

The key here is moderation. Don't try adding too many habits at once because this could lead to burnout or frustration if you fail at achieving any one particular goal within this process. Start small (with just one or two new habits) to build momentum, then gradually build upon this foundation as your confidence increases over time.

Accept Failure

We all know life isn’t perfect and things don’t always go as planned. Being flexible during times of stress or change can be incredibly beneficial when trying to stick with your habit-stacking plan.

red wrong way sign with text wrong way painted in white

Don’t beat yourself up if you miss out on one day or one step of the process. Instead try reframing negative thoughts into positive ones and remind yourself that each day brings an opportunity to press the reset button and try again!

Instead of, "I can never clean my house" or "I never get things right," tell yourself instead, "I'm working hard at changing these habits, and it's going to take me time," or "Everyone struggles with creating new habits, and I will get there eventually."

Review Your Goals

one month calendar that says goals this month with a cup of coffee sitting on it

Review these goals regularly so you are reminded of why you started this process in the first place. Reflecting on your progress enables you to appreciate how far you've come while also providing insight into areas where improvements need to be made before continuing further down the path toward achieving the ultimate outcome.

Reward Your Successes

Habits are easier to keep when there is something in it for you! Rewarding yourself for achieving your goals is a great way to track progress and stay motivated.

Positive reinforcement works wonders and is especially helpful for those on the autism spectrum who have had so many setbacks during their lives and may find it difficult to remain focused on their end goal without support or external motivation.

Gif of the words good job in multi-colors and sliding back and forth against each other

See if you can recruit someone to positively reinforce you when you achieve the new goal, perhaps one of the people you told that you were working on it. Just hearing a, "Good job!" from someone you care about who cares about you can go a long way to reinforcing your hard work and make it more likely to stick.

Whether it’s taking a well-earned break after completing an item on your checklist or treating yourself after reaching a milestone, finding ways to reward yourself for building good habits will make all the difference in keeping them alive!

Assess Setbacks with New Habits

No plan is perfect. Setbacks are bound to happen at some point while you are implementing a habit-stacking strategy, but don't let them discourage you! What works for others may not work for you -- and that is okay! Use your setbacks as learning opportunities to figure out a better way for you to approach the habit. A neurodivergent life coach can help tremendously with this.

What To Consider When Stacking Habits

With the right strategies and tips, anyone can stack up good habits that will help them achieve their goals. Let’s take a look at what you need to consider when creating a habit-stacking plan.

Essentially, there are three criteria you need to focus on to make sure your habit-stacking efforts are successful. When setting new habits, make sure they meet these three criteria:

Puzzle pieces labeled with the numbers 1 2 and 3 the number of criteria needed to  consider in habit stacking

1) Specific

When it comes to habit stacking, specificity is key. Instead of saying “I’m going to meditate every day,” try saying “I’m going to meditate for five minutes after my morning shower every day.” This way, you are creating a specific habit in your mind instead of a vague goal. This will help you remember your habit and make it easier to stick with it over time.

2) Short

Another important thing to consider when creating habits is keeping them short. Our brains can only handle so much information at once, so if your habit is too long or complex, it might be hard to remember or manage each day. That’s why it’s best to keep your habits short and simple so they don't overwhelm you or become difficult to maintain over time.

3) Attainable

Finally, when creating new habits for yourself as an autistic person, make sure they are achievable and realistic goals that won't make you feel overwhelmed or discouraged from the start.

For example, if your goal is to become more active but you haven't been working out lately, starting with a 10-minute walk each day may be more attainable than running three miles per day right away. By setting realistic goals for yourself from the beginning, you'll be more likely to stay motivated and achieve success in the long run!

Final Thoughts

Breaking out of old routines and creating new habits can be difficult but with a little bit of planning and determination, it is possible through using the technique known as “habit stacking."

By leveraging existing habits, specifically things you do anyway that do not require effort, and stacking onto them, this technique makes forming new habits easier and more manageable so that they become second nature over time! If you’re looking for ways to create new habits or make changes in your life, give this technique a try today!


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