If you reflect on your daily life, dear readers, chances are you’ve acquired a few habits that you’re not so proud of — like leaving your socks on the floor. And if you’ve ever tried to break a not-so-great habit, you know it’s easier said than done.
The same is true for building new habits. Especially if they’re things you know you probably should be doing — like picking up those socks, putting them on your feet, sliding your feet into some sneakers, and going for a walk. As humans, we’re hardwired to follow established patterns. But here’s the good news for health communicators: If you’re trying to help your readers create a new habit, that hardwiring can actually be helpful — and that’s the idea behind a technique called habit stacking.
Originally coined by author S.J. Scott (or at least that’s the best info we could find), the term “habit stacking” basically means finding a behavior (the “habit” in this “stacking” scenario) that you already do and “stacking” a new one on top of it. Over time and with repetition, the new behavior becomes a habit, requiring less effort and focus.
So how can we apply this to our work as health communicators? Let’s say you’re encouraging your readers to prep healthy snacks for work in advance. You might suggest they think about something they already do every night — maybe eating dinner — and “stack” the new behavior on top. You could write: “After you eat dinner each night, cut up some fresh fruit to take to work the next day.”
And depending on the context of your material, then you might also explain the “why” behind the stacking: “If you connect a new behavior to something you already do anyway, it can be easier for your brain to make the new behavior a habit.”
Want more details about why this works? We’ll let James Clear, who covers habit stacking in his 2018 best-selling book Atomic Habits, speak to that: “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,” he writes. (You can read more in this excerpt from Atomic Habits.)
By stacking a new behavior onto an old one, you’re leveraging those connections, making it easier for the new behavior to become a habit. And what health communicator doesn’t ❤️ a healthy habit?!
The bottom line: Habit stacking is a great tool for the health communicator’s behavior change toolbox.
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