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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie, from wellnessmama.com. And this episode is a series of short podcasts that will attempt to provide a Feynman summary of sorts of my understanding of an entire topic that I will present in an actionable way, in under 30 minutes, with some key takeaways that you can try to implement whatever this topic is, into your life. And as a paraphrase of how Andrew Huberman starts his podcast, I would like to emphasize that all of my podcasts are separate from my primary role as mom, mommy, mom, and mother in my home, and that they are not medical advice. I am not a doctor, and I don’t play one on the internet. So these are for educational purposes only. And as I always remind you guys, you are your own primary health care provider. And while we can work with amazing practitioners who can be our partner in that, at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with each of us to control the inputs that actually lead to better health. And so, one of my goals and one of my missions behind running wellnessmama.com is to help make that information more accessible and more usable, so that we can each become more effective in our own roles as primary health care provider.
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But onto today’s topic, this podcast is all about habits, and a term that I’ve used a lot in the past couple of years, habit stacking. I’m sure you’ve heard that word. But habits are basically shortcuts, because they have become things we do consistently. And the key being without having to put much effort or thought into them. So that’s good or bad news, depending on how we look at it, because research estimates that as much as 40% of what we do in a day isn’t the result of decisions, but of habits. And by understanding this, we can use habits to our advantage in new ways. So the question is, how do we form habits? How do we get them to stick? And in this episode, I’m going to briefly dive into the research surrounding habit creation, including methods for starting new habits and making them stick. And delve into a concept called habit stacking, which is a term I have been using for years. It’s a way I found that’s really helpful in getting new habits to stick. And in outlining for this episode, I found that the term was originally created by BJ Fogg, who has been using this term for years. I haven’t taken this course, but it’s part of his Tiny Habits program, that I will link to in the show notes if you’re interested in learning more. And there’s also apparently a book called “Habit Stacking” that I haven’t read, but I will link that in the show notes as well in case you want to read it.
So first, a little bit on the science of habits. One thing we know is that habits are often connected to a cue or a trigger that reminds us of the habit without having to use much thought or willpower. And more on that in a minute. But without much thought or willpower is a key part. A struggle that you may be familiar with, is that long term objectives like working out more, getting rid of excess body fat, consuming healthier foods, saving more money, etc., often conflict with short term desires, like the desire to watch your favorite show, or eat something sweet, or buy something we want. The good news is, that there are things we can do that seem to drastically improve our likelihood of sticking with new habits over time. So, habits often mean a change in routine, which does require effort in the short term. And by integrating new habits with part of an existing routine, we can shorten the willpower portion of the habit creation.
And that’s what I’ll talk about in a minute, called habit stacking. Basically connecting a new habit to something with a short term or immediate reward. Because there’s a release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in reinforcing behaviors in the brain’s reward pathway. This helps us cement the new habit as a positive experience. And I’ll give you some shortcuts on how I’ve done that in a few minutes.
There’s also a lot of debate about how long it takes to form a habit. And you’ve probably heard estimates ranging from on the very low end, 7 days, to the very common, 21 days, up to 90 days, or even much more. There seems to be some variation, of course, here depending on the type of habit, and if it requires breaking another habit to implement this habit. But the most consistent answer I saw on the research for the average habit was actually about 66 days, so over two months. And in delving into this research, the popular idea that a habit takes 21 days dates back to a plastic surgeon actually, named Maxwell Maltz,who found When he performed a surgery that altered someone’s appearance, it took an average of 21 days for them to get used to the new look.
He realized that it also took him about 21 days to get used to a new habit as well. And he published this idea in a book called “Psycho-Cybernetics,” which has sold millions of copies. And according to the blogger James Clear, this idea spread like a game of telephone, and many self-help gurus picked up the idea, claiming that a habit takes exactly 21 days to form. Now, the downside is, it can take significantly longer, and many people understandably become discouraged when that 21-day mark comes and goes. But according to James Clear, Phillippa Lally is a health psychology professor at University College London. In a study published in the “European Journal of Social Psychology,” she and her research team decided to figure out how long it actually takes to form a habit. This study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks, and reported each day on whether they did the behavior and how automatic it felt. That’s where the 66 day timeline came from, that James Clear mentions.
I do wonder, because it was a 12-week study, if there were limitations based on their time period as well. But there was another important finding from that study, which was that missing a day or two did not seem to restart the habit formation process, or derail progress. So while you wouldn’t want to miss more than a day or two in a row, an occasional miss does not seem to derail a habit. Which is an important mindset part to have in place so that you don’t give up, for instance, if you’re trying to integrate a new habit and you miss one day. But the takeaway on timing, expect a new habit to take at least a couple of months, with some taking much longer. I think having realistic expectations around that is important, so we don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t become easy and automatic and 21 days.
There’s another important distinction as part of this conversation, which is the difference between habits and routines. Both are important, obviously, but there are some differences. And I think often, the definitions get confused. So like I said in the beginning, habits take little or no thought. They become almost automatic. While routines can include habits, but they do take some thought or effort. So, routines can be really helpful in building habits. But just because something has become a routine does not mean that it’s fully integrated as a habit.
A little bit of science here, stay with me. There are specific neuronal connections that are strongest for the things we do consistently. For instance, if we play tennis regularly or play an instrument, the neuronal connections get stronger for those specific things. And researchers think that our brains strengthen neuronal connections for things we do often and prune away ones that aren’t getting used. So, fun fact, this is why babies have more neurons in the brain, in general. It’s because their brains are sponges that are waiting to soak up information, and create those stronger pathways, and integrate habits. And as adults, we have fewer neurons, but potentially stronger connections oriented toward things that we do often or have mastered.
So the process of creating a habit isn’t just about learning to do something repeatedly. It’s really about wiring and strengthening the brain. And understanding that, it makes sense that this takes some time. So sidenote, unrelated, but I’m personally a fan of mixing up routines and habits once they’re integrated, as a pattern interrupt and to maintain adaptability. I think there’s also some potential arguments for brain health here. You might have heard me say before that I have the principle of not doing anything, every single day, with the exception of a few things like hugging my children, and telling them that I love them. But my logic here is that I don’t want my body and brain to become too accustomed to anything. And the pattern interrupt seems helpful for focus at times. So for me, this means I don’t take supplements every single day. I don’t eat every day. Sometimes I fast. I definitely don’t eat the same foods every day. I don’t do the same exercises every day. I don’t even read every single day or sauna, even though those are all things I consistently do.
Another caution though, don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to habit formation. Breaking the mindset of giving up on a new habit because you messed up one time will increase the chance of actually integrating the habit for longer. And one other small tip I found helpful here is, instead of thinking of days as singular units, break your day into maybe, like, three or four hour chunks, or, like, morning, early afternoon, later afternoon, evening. And if you mess up within a given chunk, let it reset at the next one. So you have four separate blocks every day versus one day where you’re like, “Oh, well, I already ate something I wasn’t going to eat today. So I’m just going to wait till tomorrow to do it again.” That’ll shorten the timeline on getting back on track.
There’s other factors that emerge in the research when it comes to habits. One is called implementation intentions. So basically, this is just a fancy term, but it basically is a detailed plan, usually in an if/then format of how and when a habit is going to happen. I’ve also used this if/then strategy with my kids and with home organization. You might have heard me talk about that. I also have heard this recommended by Amy McCready from Positive Parenting Solutions, to use specific with kids, because their brains also seem to respond well to if/then statements. Like, if you have made your bed, then you may do whatever the thing is. It turns out, though, that simply setting the implementation intention in a very detailed way can more than double the chance of you taking the action and cementing the habit.
About 20 years ago, a study looked at this, relating to creating the habit of exercising, and they divided people into three groups. One was a controlled group, one was a group that was given education and motivation about why exercise was important, and the third group had to create a specific plan of when and where they would exercise, and/or with whom, if they were going with someone. So at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the gym, etc. The first two groups, 35% to 38% of the people did the habit. The third group who had to make a detailed plan that was written down, about 91% did. So just the act of defining that to your brain seems to make a big difference. This is also the reason I’m a fan of writing down challenges, experiments, and intentions, and then it really does help them happen.
Now, for the term that I am a big fan of and that I mentioned recently on another podcast where I was being interviewed, and the interviewer wanted to go really deep on this. I wanted to give it to you guys as well. And that is the term, habit stacking. So as I said, habit stacking is a term I’ve been using for a long time. And in researching for this podcast, I found that it was originally coined by BJ Fogg. And there isn’t direct research that I’m aware of on habit stacking. Though I have personally found this extremely helpful. And I think logically, it makes a lot of sense.
As the name suggests, this is simply the idea of stacking two habits together. One that is already a regular habit and ingrained, like, brushing teeth, waking up, eating a meal, taking a shower, things that are very ingrained habits, with a new habit that you are trying to create to potentially shorten the path of creating the new habit. Since the neuronal pathway of the existing habit is already so strong, it’s a reliable trigger. I’ll give some specific example of this in a minute. But I’ve also seen this term used to reference stacking a new habit with something pleasurable or rewarding.
Though I would personally consider this a way to get the immediate dopamine release, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider it habit stacking if the dopamine creating thing is not already a habit. The other advantage here is that if an existing habit is not something that requires effort, and it’s something you do regularly, it doesn’t take any willpower, and you don’t have to remember to do it. So if you can link the new habit to this, it reduces the likelihood of you forgetting the new habit, which makes compliance easier. And because that neuronal pathway is already so well established, potentially, we might be able to link that neuronal pathway to create the new one in a shorter time period. Because we already established well-formed habits have strong neural pathways around them. And while this hasn’t been well researched, I wish they would research this, this might be one of the reasons that I found that habit stacking is so helpful. It’s reasonable to think that the well-established habit pathway, the neuronal pathway in the brain, might somehow benefit the creation of the new neural pathway as well.
Also, since we established that new habit creation requires willpower, and mental resources as the brain creates stronger neural pathways, it’s also helpful to consider how to remove obstacles and to put things or triggers in your way, so you don’t forget them when you’re trying to create a new habit. Like I said, I’ll share some of my specific examples in a moment. But when it comes to putting things in your way, this includes things like putting supplements in visible spots, where you actually need to take them, or putting movement related objects in your normal environment. So in our home, that’s things like we have gymnastics rings hanging in the bedrooms. We have a climbing hangboard in the kitchen. We have pull up bars in a couple places. There’s a gymnastics mat down our hallway. At one point we even had a mini trampoline as a coffee table. But putting those things in your way just increases your chance that you’re going to see them and use them.
And before we get to the specific examples, some other tips to keep in mind. Small habits are easier to implement and you can build on them. It seems like one of the reasons people will give up on a new habit creation is that they will try to take on too much at once and get overwhelmed or deplete willpower. So, a short workout each day, adding a little bit more protein or vegetables, etc., is easier than trying to completely change your diet or add a huge workout routine when you haven’t been working out at all.
I even read the story of one researcher who decided to create the habit of doing only one pushup a day, and doing much more and integrating movement as a daily practice, but he only committed to one pushup, which made it feel doable and he actually stuck with it. Also, the more specifically defined the new habit is, the more likely we are to stick with them, like I mentioned when it came to implementation intention. I say to keep these three things in mind when implementing a new habit; simple, short, and specific. And the more you can nail those, the more likely you are going to be to integrate the new habit.
Also, make sure to remember to remove decision fatigue and put things in your way, anything you can do to reduce the amount of willpower needed to create the habit, that’s going to help it stick. Also a note on breaking habits. Just the desire to stop doing something does not seem like a reliable strategy for actually doing it. So with the often-used example of quitting smoking, for instance. It isn’t just about wanting to quit, obviously, or many more people would have quit. It’s easier to replace a habit than to remove it entirely. So when you’re doing this, consider all the benefits of the habit you’re trying to break. Even if it’s a habit you consider bad, there are benefits, and your brain acts in what it considers to be a benefit to you. So identify those benefits. In the case of smoking, this could be time outside, regular breaks, it could be a social thing. And then find ways to still get those benefits or trigger dopamine in other ways instead of just trying to drop the habit. And consider maybe a positive habit or an action to replace the habit you’re trying to break with, especially if the habit has a strong desire loop, like nicotine.
Okay, so I’m gonna give you some of my practical examples that I personally use for habit stacking, to give you some ideas to get started. And I would love to hear any that you guys have yourselves in the comments, and we can build a conversation around that. But these are habits that relate to health things that I’ve talked about on this podcast before. And I’ll link to some previous podcasts in the show notes if you want to understand why I wanted to create these habits.
But for the habit of getting more natural sunlight in the morning, I link to the habit of drinking coffee. So I drink coffee outside instead of inside in the morning, to get the natural light, which is good for us, and which starts our circadian cycle, while combining with something that is already a habit. So, morning sunlight, new habit, combining with a habit and something I love, which is coffee.
Another one I mentioned a little bit was putting supplements where you need to use them, that are linked to things that already habitually happen. So, for instance, I have supplements on my nightstand, by my coffee stuff in the morning, on my bathroom counter for right after I brush my teeth in the morning. Even for my dad who always uses salt and pepper, I at one point taped some supplements to salt and pepper shakers, and put them on the table so he would see them when he actually needed to take them. I’ve also used things like listening to an audiobook or a podcast, which is something I enjoy that’s already a habit, but only at the gym, which was a new habit at the time that I was trying to create.
For trying to sleep more, you could try switching lights at home to sunset mode with no blue light and low lights like lamps, and drinking calming tea while reading or doing something preferably not on screens. I wanted to start doing lymphatic drainage, both on my face and as a massage. And you want skin that’s not dry for that. So I linked that to when I’m in the shower, which is already a habit, of course, then I would do gua sha and lymphatic drainage, and I put the tools for that in the shower so I would remember.
Another one you can do with the shower is oil pulling, if you’re trying to integrate the habit of oil pulling, which can be really good for your teeth and gums. Put the oil pulling oil in the shower so you see it and can do it while you’re in there. Most people aren’t talking a lot in the shower anyway, so it’s a great time to do that. Another one related to light would be to make it a habit to eat lunch outside. So, lunch is a normal behavior, getting midday sun is a new behavior you want to implement. Just make it a habit to eat lunch outside. If you need to drink more water in the morning, this is a habit I integrated years ago. I keep a quart size mason jar of water, and now I add a few drops of electrolytes and silica, next to my bathroom sink. So when I wake up, which is something I do every day, in fact probably my most consistent daily habit to date, and I brush my teeth, I immediately drink the glass of water, before I shower, before I eat anything, and certainly before I have coffee. I also put a book on my pillow when I make my bed in the morning, which triggers me to remember to read at night.
Another one that was easy, I started keeping a gallon insulated water bottle in my car. So anytime I’m driving, I remember to drink water. And I’ll often just put it there at night when I’m doing my nighttime routine, so it’s ready to go the next morning. I also integrated something to my habit of making coffee in the morning, which is, when I make coffee, I write my three most important task of the day, and three things I’m grateful for in my notebook that I keep on my coffee bar, so it reminds me to do it. Also related to that, before I go to bed, I jot down my to do list items or anything taking up mental energy on a notepad by my bed, so that I’m not thinking about these things, and I’m not kept up at night trying to remember them. And the trigger for that is keeping the note pad on my nightstand. Another habit I implemented is when I sit down to work at my computer, then I set a timer for 90 minutes. And if I haven’t taken a break by then, that is my movement and hydration break.
And also in the note to just putting things in the way of existing habits, things like keeping Graston tools in the sauna. So sauna is an existing habit for me, putting those tools in there reminds me to use them for lymphatic drainage while I’m in the sauna. And for exercise, working out with a friend who you’re already spending time with, there’s the habit of spending time with a friend, working out the new habit, you’re linking that. There are endless examples, I could go into a lot more. But I think also having written down in the name of the implementation intention, writing these down is helpful, because the brain does seem to remember and implement them more if we write them down. And also just having some simple guidelines and principles in mind can also really help, including some that stack a desirable habit before a pleasurable one.
So, an example would be sky before screens in the morning. And credit to podcast guest Amy Shah for putting that so concisely. But sky before screens, natural sunlight before screens in the morning. Another one I do is protein before coffee, which also there’s some evidence that delaying coffee 60 to 90 minutes after waking up really helps the adenosine pathways. So, there’s a benefit there to not having the afternoon slump. Having water where I brush my teeth. Walking after meals is a great one. And then also just a tactical tip, keeping a done list where you write things down after you do them can sometimes be more productive than keeping a to do list, because it feels good to see that list grow throughout the day. Or you can use Notion on your phone, which is what I do for a lot of my list keeping.
So I’ve mentioned a few habits you can stack, some new habits worth considering. I know this time of year, many people are trying to integrate new habits. If you aren’t already, maybe some to consider would be things like morning sunlight, or cooking more at home, adding more movement in some form. Some simple food substitutes or just adding in more protein versus a deprivation focus with food. A funny personal habit I’m trying to form personally is to hang up my clothes more quickly. This is something I am, despite being very organized in many areas of my life, I’m historically terrible at doing. And I tend to batch them like I do a lot of other things. But I love when my closet is always really tidy. So I’m trying to tie that habit to getting dressed, which is something I do anyway. And I transitioned to where all of my clothes live in my closet, none are in my room. And so now I have a, when I get dressed, then I make sure the closet is tidy.
There are endless examples. I would love to hear how you will implement habit stacking or how you have if you already have. Or any tips you have for creating new habits and getting them to stick. But I’ll leave you today with the words of Aristotle. “We are what we repeatedly do. So excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”
And as always, thank you guys so much for listening and for taking the time today. I would love to hear what you think of these new shorter episodes, which are not replacing our existing episodes, but in addition to. All the links to the programs, books, and things I’ve talked about, are in the show notes at wellnessmama.fm. So you can find those there. I’d love to hear from you in the show notes as well. And as always, I’m so grateful that you are sharing your most valuable resources with me today, your time, your energy, and your attention. So grateful you’re here. Thank you for listening. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama Podcast.
If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.