Habit Stacking

In Lifestyle, Therapy by Kelsey Nimmo, MA, LPC, LLMFT

A client recently told me about the term “habit stacking.” One of the things I absolutely love about being a therapist is the inherent continuous learning. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t learn about something new from a client – a new trend, phrase, book, place, movie, celebrity, game, news update, fashion style, invention, historical fact, musician, and the list goes on. This time, it was the concept of habit stacking.

I very quickly fell in love with the habit stacking. And although I still haven’t found time to Google what other people consider to be habit stacking (apparently a few books exist on the topic already), my clients defined it as creating large scale life changes by changing one detail (or adding one element) to an already existing habit. I like their definition and I’m sticking to it.

For an example, if you want to start taking vitamins every day and you already drink coffee every morning, you can stack the vitamins onto your coffee habit. Drink your coffee and then take your vitamins. Want to also make your lunch for work? After a few weeks of settling into your newly stacked habit, add on packing a lunch. Coffee, vitamins, lunch packing.

Sometimes change takes months and years. Decades, even. And then other times all it takes a strategically stacked habit on top of another habit on top of another. The momentum of change can be powerful – especially when it is change that reflects our value system. I’ve been hungry for value-based living lately. My bones ache for it and my heart yearns for it. It is tangible. I can feel it throughout my whole body.

This is usually how my change starts. This body feel. It feels antsy and unsettled and busy and urgent and restless and if it had a word, the word would be NOW. Right now. I need to change something right now because something is missing. Somehow I have drifted away from living according to my true self. Whenever this body feel comes up, I listen to it. It has never led me astray.

Last week, I got the body feel and I began observing. This is my normal method of appraisal. Step 1 of change: I observe my world. It is surprisingly uncommon for us to truly observe ourselves, I think. If you’re like me, you often get swept up in the commotion and busy-ness of every day life. I may help guide others into mindful practices but I’m no expert in mindful living. Dabbling in mindfulness, remember? Always progressing, never progressed. Never done. In fact, I think perpetually starting would be a more accurate way to describe my relationship to mindfulness.

So first I observe. I take an inventory of what my daily life looks like and I appraise the value of where I spend my time, my money, my attention. This observation stage is painful. Just as the body feel takes over when my instinct tells me something is off, this observation phase becomes a physically painful awareness.

Step 2 of change is more gratifying: I make some trades. This part looks different every time – and you’ll hear more about that soon. Truly it all does come down to habit stacking in a way but it’s far too long for one blog post. After my most recent observation, I decided to trade fast convenience for slow DIY – starting with cooking. There was a time last year when, for a few months, I was experimenting with one new recipe every week. I loved this. It felt so rewarding to be meal planning, crafting, and also physically touching the actual food elements themselves rather than just ABCs printed onto a label. So last week I traded fast convenience foods for DIY meals.

Remember how some changes start small? I think habit stacking is meant to be stacking a new habit onto an existing habit in real time. But this week I discovered a secret: habit stacking can be done in heart-time, not just real-time. It doesn’t have to be based off of our clocks. It doesn’t have to mean I stack a 7:50am new floss habit onto my 7:45am tooth brushing habit. It can be based off of values-based heart-time. It can have momentum not because of time but because it makes the heart happy.

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THE SECRET TO MAKING HEART-HAPPY CHANGE:

  1. Pay attention to the body feel – the thing telling every cell in your body that you aren’t living the way you’re meant to live.
  2. Observe your world. You’ll want to have some good self-care for this one…
  3. Make a trade. Choose what you are getting rid of and what you want to invite in.
  4. Habit stack.
  5. Habit stack.
  6. Keep habit stacking.

Mine recently went like this:

  1. Body feel. Something is off.
  2. Observe my world. Everything is too fast and too loud. My to do list is too long and my joy is squeezed between daily routine tasks. My priorities have been pushed out by things that are masquerading as priorities.
  3. Trade fast convenient meals for home-cooked meals. Not everything is pure and local and organic and non-GMO and minimally processed. The first meal was a casserole with a whole tub of sour cream and a shredded up rotisserie chicken. The second included crescent rolls. Trade for better, not perfect.
  4. Habit stack. My heart was happy making these meals. A few days later, I went to visit a friend and decided to make a mini-loaf of banana bread to take with me when I visited for our coffee and play date.
  5. Habit stack. My heart was happy bringing a small home made gift to a friend. A few days later, I decided to return to blogging. As soon as I talked it over with my partner and he affirmed that it was time to step into this new era of our lives and answer the calling that had been knocking at my door, I felt jazzed. I stayed up for hours writing. I was in love. And if you’re curious to know my thoughts on being a blogging therapist, I put hours into this article explaining it.
  6. Habit stack. My heart was happy writing. When I finally went to bed, I was too excited to sleep. Instead of laying awake and daydreaming about all the words I wanted my fingers to type out into the keyboard, I grabbed my phone and started a meditation on a new app I hadn’t yet opened. It had been months since I last intentionally created space for meditation in my life. And although I had wanted to return to it ever since I had stopped, I never quite had the motivation.

Habit stacking based off of heart-time carries its own momentum. It allowed me to re-introduce habits to my world that were more values-based. Getting these changes to stick might still require clock-time habit stacking… but at least I got the ball rolling. I only hope that my other body feels and uncomfortable personal awareness can come with such a beautiful outcome as this happy-hearted one.

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To set up an appointment with Kelsey, email her at kelsey@kzootherapy.com or contact her here: