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Habit Stacking: How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones

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Joined: 01/18/2012

Read this at the gym tonight.. 

Habit Stacking: How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones
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In 2007, researchers at Oxford University started peering into the brains of newborn babies. What they found was surprising.

After comparing the newborn brains to the normal adult human, the researchers realized that the average adult had 41 percent fewer neurons than the average newborn. [1]

At first glance, this discovery didn’t make sense. If babies have more neurons, then why are adults smarter and more skilled?

Let’s talk about what is going on here, why this is important, and what it has to do with building better habits and mastering your mental and physical performance.

The Power of Synaptic Pruning

There is a phenomenon that happens as we age called synaptic pruning. 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.

For example, if you practice playing the piano for 10 years, then your brain will strengthen the connections between those musical neurons. The more you play, the stronger the connections become. Not only that, the connections become faster and more efficient each time you practice. As your brain builds stronger and faster connections between neurons, you can express your skills with more ease and expertise. It is a biological change that leads to skill development.

Meanwhile, someone else who has never played the piano is not strengthening those connections in their brain. As a result, the brain prunes away those unused connections and allocates energy toward building connections for other life skills.

This explains the difference between newborn brains and adult brains. Babies are born with brains that are like a blank canvas. Everything is a possibility, but they don’t have strong connections anywhere. The adults, however, have pruned away a good deal of their neurons, but they have very strong connections that support certain skills.

Now for the fun part. Let’s talk about how synaptic pruning plays an important role in building new habits.

Habit Stacking

Synaptic pruning occurs with every habit you build. As we’ve covered, your brain builds a strong network of neurons to support your current behaviors. The more you do something, the stronger and more efficient the connection becomes.

You probably have very strong habits and connections that you take for granted each day. For example, your brain is probably very efficient at remembering to take a shower each morning or to brew your morning cup of coffee or to open the blinds when the sun rises … or thousands of other daily habits. You can take advantage of these strong connections to build new habits.


The quickest way to build a new habit into your life is to stack it on top of a current habit.

This is a concept called “habit stacking” because you stack your new habit on top of a current habit. Because the current habit is strongly wired into your brain already, you can add a new habit into this fast and efficient network of neurons more quickly than if you tried to build a new path from scratch. (Note: I’m not the first person to figure this out. [2])

Habit Stacking Examples

To use habit stacking, just fill out this sentence…

After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

Here are some habit stacking examples…

  • Meditation Habit: After I brew my morning coffee, I will meditate for one minute.
  • Pushup Habit: Before I take my morning shower, I will do 10 pushups.
  • Flossing Habit: After I brush my teeth, I will floss my teeth.
  • Gratitude Habit: Before I eat my first bite of dinner, I will say one thing I am grateful for that day.
  • Networking Habit: After I get back from my lunch break, I will send one email to someone I want to meet.
  • Stretching Habit: After I finish my last set of squats, I will stretch my hamstrings.

Again, the reason habit stacking works so well is that your current habits are already built into your brain. You have patterns and behaviors that have been strengthened over years. By linking your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, you make it more likely that you’ll stick to the new behavior.

The Next Step

To get started, simply write out a list of the current habits that you do each day. (Don’t forget about all the boring everyday routines.) Then, write out a second list of the habits you want to start. Finally, pick one habit and look for the appropriate place to stack it.

As a final note, you need to make sure that you stack habits of an appropriate size. Your new behavior needs to be small at the start. You can worry about escalating and improving later.

Happy habit stacking!


If you are interested in more strategies for increasing your willpower and sticking to better habits, I explain all sorts of techniques and the science behind them in my Habits Workshop.


  1. Excess of Neurons in the Human Newborn Mediodorsal Thalamus Compared with That of the Adult by Maja Abitz, Rune Damgaard Nielsen, Edward G. Jones, Henning Laursen, Niels Graem and Bente Pakkenberg
  2. BJ Fogg recommends a similar strategy to habit stacking in his Tiny Habits program and Courtney Carver, Julien Smith, and others have mentioned the idea of habit stacking before.


I go in and I'm crisp, clean and my vocals are fucking coming out like music. - Anonymous MW student

- Autismus Terminus Finis (Root Cause/Cure of Autism Epidemic)

- Called Off My Wedding & Other Turn Tail Signs Of The American Male

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Meow's picture
Joined: 03/27/2013
Damn thats sweet and actually

Damn thats sweet and actually makes a lot of sense. I wonder how to apply this to bad habits?

Meow's picture
Joined: 03/27/2013
maybe stack the habits then

maybe stack the habits then slowly decrease the bad habit. 

ie meditate after watching tv, and eventually turn the habit to completely meditation

Joined: 01/18/2012
Watching t.v. is for

Watching t.v. is for faggots. 


I go in and I'm crisp, clean and my vocals are fucking coming out like music. - Anonymous MW student

- Autismus Terminus Finis (Root Cause/Cure of Autism Epidemic)

- Called Off My Wedding & Other Turn Tail Signs Of The American Male

Tap Or Click For Personal Coaching Information

beargrizz's picture
Joined: 09/30/2012
Hey don't be calling america

Hey don't be calling america a faggot, you faggot :)


“Cleverness devoid of wisdom is extremely dangerous and destructive.
Enlightenment consciously chosen means to relinquish your attachment to past and future and to make the Now the main focus of your life.  Through allowing, you become what you are: vast, spacious. You become whole. You are not a fragment anymore, which is how the ego perceives itself. Your true nature emerges, which is one with the nature of God"
- Tollester

Joined: 02/13/2013
I've been making use of this

I've been making use of this stuff pretty consistently over the past year and a half.

Currently in my habit-flow in the mornings I draw, meditate, hit some yoga and write. All of that's integrated into my morning routine- then I read during my commute to/from work and have a couple habits I pepper in during the day. Then a couple in the evening. This month i'm adding in an evening run to my habits- I need to get on my interval sprints before amateur season rolls around. So as soon as I get home (arriving home being the trigger), I'll have my running shoes by the door and my running shit downstairs. Work clothes off, pull on my shit, out the door. Done.

Stacking doesn't work so well for cutting habits, cutting habits is more of a timeframe and willpower type deal I find. Assess the amount of time spent normally doing x, decrease the amount of time spent doing x incrementally, replace said time with y, being a positive habit change. Or just exchange the habit with something new entirely and go cold turkey, stack that with whatever triggers your little tv habit.

i.e. Everytime I sit down for dinner, I watch my favourite show- becomes- Everytime I sit down for dinner, I jot down tomorrow's goals/read/single-task and only focus on eating, like meditation almost/hit up some of my stray numbers. w.e.

zenhabits is a decent blog for this stuff, I pulled a lot of valuable info from there. It's a little repetitive in terms of content, but it makes you realize that for every habit the process is essentially the same.

Look up the Zeigarnik Effect too, that shit was a gamechanger for me. ( ) Put in short, it's an initial action that triggers the following through of a habit or willed action. So in taking that initial action, you basically shunt your mind into that headspace where it's saying 'Cool, time to do this habit.'

I.e. before I started hitting boxing and yoga consistently, when I was focused on building some bodily strength, I'd literally roll out of my bed- be face down on the floor and slap both palms on the ground. Palms to the ground = initial action, Action = Time for morning pressups fucker. All of my energy would only go into taking that small initial action- the action would follow naturally.

Getting up earlier in the morning is another one, I'd wake up and the first thing on my mind would be to get both soles of my feet onto the floor beside my bed, sitting upright. If my feet are on the ground, no fucking chance i'm going back to sleep. I wake up consistently at 5-5:30am these days, depending on my evening activities prior.

Joined: 03/28/2014
Meow wrote: Damn thats sweet

Meow wrote:
Damn thats sweet and actually makes a lot of sense. I wonder how to apply this to bad habits?

I don't think your brain understands what a bad habbit is.

Joined: 11/15/2013
This sounds really effective

This sounds really effective definitely gonna apply it. Yall should also read "implementing a habit" article by Tyler.