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Stacking Habits: How to Finally Stick to Your Morning Routine

Tell yourself you'll try a new habit for "only five minutes." Your lizard brain will take care of the rest.

Kaizen, the Japanese word for “continuous improvement,” is often applied in business situations to improve how a business runs and, therefore, the profitability of the entire operation. Focusing on the belief that good processes bring good results, this same ideal can be applied to you and your habits.

Only Five Minutes

When it comes to changing habits, I’m a big believer in the semi-famous “only five minutes” approach to getting things done. The logic here is if you tell yourself you’re only going to exercise, write, wash the dishes, or clean your apartment for “only five minutes,” your brain doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on. Nobody can argue with five minutes, including your brain, so it lets you have it.

Of course, what then usually happens is at about the five-minute mark of your task, you start to get into it. You realize it isn’t as hard as you had pegged it to be, and you start to get a taste for it, a taste which will then lead you to wanting to continue with the task.

Nobody can argue with five minutes, including your brain, so it lets you have it.

BJ Fogg spoke of an extreme example of this when he brought up his practice of flossing just one tooth a day during his November 2012 TEDx Talk. Describing such an action as a “tiny habit,” Fogg noted that “You don’t need to train in flossing all your teeth, you need to train in making it automatic.” 

Fogg went on to explain how once one of your new “tiny habits” has become a full-blown habit, you can use this existing habit as a gateway to creating many others; effectively “stacking” one habit on top of another.

I had been flossing periodically for years, but I’d never been able to make the leap into it becoming a daily habit. Inspired by Fogg, I gave it a try. On the first day of my habit creation task I woke up, rolled out of bed, and made my way to the bathroom. I flossed one single tooth.

Rather pleased with myself (if fairly underwhelmed) I went on to brush my teeth (all of them; a habit I thankfully crafted in childhood), before looking down at the list of daily habits I wanted to bring into my morning routine in the coming months:

  • Flossing
  • Stretching
  • Push-ups
  • Meditation

These are the habits I wanted to “stack.” I immediately got started, first stretching like I’d never stretched before (which isn’t too far from the truth), before jumping on the ground to do 10 push-ups. I could have done more, but I knew the only way I was going to have a fair shot at sticking to this habit was to allow myself to get a taste for it, a taste which would then lead me to wanting to continue with the task. 

After each flossing, stretching, and push-ups session, I drank a glass of water and sat down for five minutes of silent meditation. Five minutes slowly became ten, which soon morphed into fifteen. 

Stacking Habits 

Why did this work? During his TEDx Talk, Fogg claimed that there are three things that have to happen at the same moment to cause a new behavior. You have to have the motivation to do it, the ability to do it, and a trigger must occur to remind you to do it.

He explained that your trigger can be any existing habit or behavior; so long as you establish exactly what the new habit that follows the trigger will be (more on the science behind that here). We can use this effect to “stack” habits. It sounds silly, but the trigger for my flossing routine was waking up. The trigger for my stretching routine was flossing. And so on.

One habit on my original list that I didn’t mention above was the wish to start reading Spanish fiction on a daily basis. I failed to create this habit, and I believe the reason I failed is because I didn’t stack it into my morning routine, instead choosing to do it immediately before going to bed each night, thus not giving it the trigger it needed. You can have all the motivation in the world to form a new habit, and it can be well within your ability, but without that trigger it has nothing to hold on to. 

If you’ve failed to bring certain habits into your morning routine in the past, try latching them onto your morning routine stack starting five minutes at a time, or as Fogg explains it, by forming a “tiny habit” wherein the existing habit is your new tiny behavior’s trigger. Tell yourself:

After I [existing habit], I will [new tiny behavior].


How about you?

How do you stick to your morning routine?

More Posts by Benjamin Spall

Comments (1)
  • Audra

    I like the idea of flossing a single tooth. Even I could do that haha!

    • Benjamin

      One step at a time, that’s all it takes!

  • Keeshanni

    I write it all down. I just tweeted an Instagram pic of my morning and evening checklists (@kianipix) I used to suffer from chronic lateness or was always in a rush, which caused me to forget things and arrive to work frazzled and distracted. After reading the Atul Gawande’s ‘Checklist Manifesto’ I realized that the best way to organize my routine was to form a list (with no more than 7 items). It worked. As Gawande points out, our minds are naturally creative and always trying to solve problems even when we’re doing something rote. If we write down even basic things then we’re resolving the ‘problems’ they create. To boot, I put ‘get out of bed’ at the top of my list so that I already feel like I’ve accomplished something first thing in the morning.

    • Benjamin

      Nice checklists! I’ve not read that book; added to my reading list. I love the idea of adding getting out of bed to your checklist. Not only does it give you that immediate accomplishment it also gives you an immediate trigger for the next habit in your morning routine.

  • Raj Arora

    Nice article. I too believe in this line – “motivation to do it, the ability to do it, and a trigger must occur to remind you to do it”.

    • Benjamin

      Thanks Raj, BJ Fogg deserves total credit for that line (and much of the points I discuss in the article). Be sure to watch his TEDx Talk if you have a moment!

      • Raj Arora

        Sure Benjamin, I will try to to watch hi TEDx Talk this weekend. Thanks.

  • Astrid Coxon

    I don’t have a morning routine simply because my husband always throws a spanner in the works – he leaves for work earlier than me, and before he goes, there is an inevitable “oh, before you go to work could you x, y, z for me”. Today it was returning some clothes he’d ordered. And that took longer than anticipated, leaving little time for stretching or meditation!!

    I totally buy in to the concept of necessary triggers, though. We have an after work routine, which includes strength training, and when returning indoors (our gym is in an outbuilding) that’s the trigger to take any evening meds.

    • Benjamin

      If having an evening routine is working for you, I say keep on doing it. This concept focuses on triggers and the habits that you latch onto these triggers, regardless of the time of day!

  • Benjamin

    Getting your most important tasks done in the morning (the most important tasks to you, not other people) is so important. Often, if we don’t work on these tasks in the morning they’ll never get a look in later in the day!

  • Mehdi Sadeghi

    Tiny habits are really effective, I have almost no problem developing habits for mornings but what to do for evening or before sleep habits? I have still no trigger for it. (When I feel sleepy it is often too late to do anything else).

    • Benjamin

      Developing an evening routine is harder. Waking up is the perfect trigger to begin your morning routine, but nothing comes close to being as effective a starting trigger in the evening.

      That said I’m sure it’s possible. If I were you I’d start by thinking about something you do each evening at (almost) the same time without fail. That can be your first trigger.

  • Law

    Now all I got to do is form a habit of waking up early enough to complete my set of stacked habits, so that I can get to work on time.

    • Benjamin

      Honestly, the only ‘trick’ I’ve found to waking up earlier is going to bed earlier.

  • Pamela

    Aha! I get it now! Triggers… this explains why my app “Move” works so well. Random push notifications throughout the day to do one little exercise in that moment is all the motivation I need. Thanks for this article.

    • Benjamin

      I’ve heard of that app but never tried it out, thanks for the trigger (see what I did there) to take a look!

  • davemmett

    this is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. I’m getting up and going for a short run, then making breakfast and I read a book for ~30 minutes. The whole routine then kind of self perpetuates.

    • Benjamin

      Excellent, I’m glad it’s been working for you. It’s very straightforward in essence. Reading in the morning is unbelievably relaxing; nice addition.

  • Marta

    Had to share this ‘Kaizen’ method on my sites because in the “I am retired now” I am a slacker. Used to wake up to do Denise Austin, morning chores and getting ready. At work during brake I went walking with co-workers and then there was lots to do at home. Even in the first years of retirement I continued my yoga, stationary bike and face exercices. I still do most but not daily because I push it to after all the I wanted to do when I retired: writing, reading, friends, groups, family, TV shows, social media, traveling, etc. But I like the “five minutes” stackers. How about you?

    • Benjamin

      I 100% relate to pushing the things I should be doing to after the things I want to be doing, and I’m sure most of the people reading this would agree with me. Don’t be afraid to add some fun to your morning routine to encourage you to work through it all.

  • tonyfranks

    The app “Good Habits” might help to build Kaizen elements and stacking habits. And it’s free.

    • Benjamin

      Thanks Tony!

  • Juliet

    Thank you Benjamin for the great post! Stacking tiny habits definitely works. What I also find works is to “insert” enjoyable habits in between more challenging ones, like making a cup of good coffee before sitting down to write a blogpost. Just like Law mentioned, waking up earlier also helps. I’ve recently shared how I stick to waking up at 5am on Medium. Hope it might be helpful for those of you who want to join us early birds!

    • Benjamin

      Inserting more enjoyable habits among less enjoyable ones is a great idea! Thanks for the article, I’ve added it to my reading list.

    • Ari Tulla

      Thanks so much for sharing your blog Juliet – these are fantastic tips for non-early birds to get started in the morning! We’ve got a bunch of community members who are looking to increase their fitness levels, and the general consensus is that they want to begin working out in the morning. First step? Actually getting up in the morning!

    • Cameron

      Great ideas! I’ve found waking at 5:30am daily has become vastly easier by applying the Hungry Cat Banging on Bedroom Door strategy 😉 I was aiming for getting up at 6am, but my daylight simulator clock works earlier on the cat than it does on me. I’m looking forward to early natural daylight but the setback of changing over to daylight savings time, with its return to dark dawns, didn’t help.
      I completely agree with setting a hot beverage in motion first thing, even before feeding Dmewtri Tiomkin. With the kettle boiling, and the milk and teabag in the cup, I know my reward for getting up is just moments away.
      I use that 90 minutes before I must leave for my day job to work on a big project (most recently a visual memoir movie for my 90-year-old parents) which otherwise gets pushed aside in the after-work errands list. And since the cat is no respecter of weekends, I’m usually up between 6 and 6:30am anyway — great for getting a lot done before the weekend task list interferes.

  • Benjamin

    1. I agree with you here, though I’ve since started flossing both mornings and evenings; evenings for exact reason you state, and mornings because well, why not. That said, I’d rather people flossed in the mornings than not at all.

    2. Which warm-up exercises would you suggest? I’ve had a look around online but would love some tried-and-tested ideas!

  • Steven Feeney

    There is no evidence to suggest muscles must “warm up” prior to stretching. It is an outdated and unsubstantiated claim. Significant numbers of ballet dancers and martial artists stretch cold daily.

  • Ashley Pajak

    This shall be implemented into my daily schedule forthwith!

    • Benjamin

      Excellent, let me know how it works for you!

  • Paulo Mrcookie Blanco

    Estabelecer um horário para despertar,
    que de para aquecer os motores e depois iniciar o dia é fundamental.
    Tem que dar tempo, ao que requer tempo!

    Despertar, arrumar sua cama, despertar a família, banheiro, água, café,
    leitura espiritual, lavar-se, computador e tarefas, telefone …

    Depois uma questão de foco !

    • Benjamin

      It’s all about focus. Obrigado Paulo, it definitely takes time to make it automatic, but it’s worth the effort.

    • Paulo Mrcookie Blanco

      I agree with you Benjamin !
      I have to start a “crowdfunding” (friendlyfunding) among the clients we have at facebook page MrCOOKIE & MrsMUFFIN JUSTdoEAT ..

      But i have spent all the days, and … don´t fucusuing
      But i´m more relaxed to start these past days, cause i got time to do the basics … and have done.

      Now i´m waiting for the Thousand True Friends to start the campaign
      Got 833 (last view), but i still have not drawn the bases of the event.

      I realy have a problem ! I keep dreaming and dreaming …

  • Peter Cianci

    First habit, spending time with God reading the Bible! Through His Word He gives me strength, hope, courage and “wisdom” to face the day in alignment with His Will. Second habit is stretching and then a total body workout. Eat breakfast, pray with my wife and kids and now, I’m off to work feeling strong, empowered, blessed and happy.

    • Antitheist

      Give me a break.

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