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Stackable Habits

| January 30, 2024

by Marcia Dority Baker

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Marcia Dority Baker, Program Leader and Leadership Coach at MOR Associates. Marcia may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

One of my favorite times is the first few days of January; there is hope for a new year, with lots of potential and the unease of what’s around the corner! While we can have a similar experience at other times of the year, there’s something exciting about turning the calendar from one year to the next. But let’s be honest: January is also a time of disappointment and frustration. Many people set goals to change something we don’t like about ourselves or get started on something we think we should do. What if we quit doing the thing that hasn’t worked and try something new? Albert Einstein, one of the smartest men in the world, is thought to have said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” 

What habits have you practiced for 3+ years?

Sometimes, getting started is the hardest part of doing anything. A healthy approach to making changes in habits begins with reflection. What habit(s) have you practiced for three or more years? By pausing to list those regular habits, we can see what and where we have built a good foundation. Be as specific as possible when documenting your habits. A simple list or daily column is an excellent start to visualize your habits. For instance, if you brush your teeth in the morning and before bed each night or drink coffee or tea in the morning. No matter what or where you may be (home or travel), these are the items you do. 

People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures. – F.M. Alexander 

Outcomes. Processes. Identity. What are you? 

Research on habits has found that people change for two types of reasons. The first is an outcome change or what one wants to achieve. This can be a big goal, such as running a marathon or writing a book. The second reason for change is a change in identity; this habit helps you become who you want to be. For instance, this is seeing yourself as a runner because you are training for a race or a writer because you write daily. Our habits shape our identity and the habits we practice become our future.  Knowing how to modify our habits therefore leads to success. To change the outcome, one must adjust their identity, but to do this successfully, we need to modify our processes.

Stackable Habits 

One approach to creating sustainable change is to modify our processes or habits. The premise of stackable habits is building a new habit on an existing habit. So, back to that list of daily habits that one has practiced for a few years, where are existing habits that can be used to adjust a habit to focus on who you want to become? To move to your desired future state, what habit can you stack with an existing habit? Many people need more motivation and clarity on what they want to accomplish. By being specific about what one wants to achieve, for instance, not just to write a book but to be a writer, habit stacking can accomplish the goal. Based on the work of James Clear, the formula for stacking habits is: after I (CURRENT HABIT), I will (NEW HABIT). For instance, if mornings are when one is most mentally active, then stacking a habit on a morning routine is optimal. Instead of saying, I will write each morning, which is vague, be specific; after I open the lid of my laptop, I will write for 10 minutes each day during the work week. 

A Streak or a Chain

I have some runner friends with running streaks that seem outrageous to me. One friend runs a 5K (3.1 miles) each day in December, another runs at least a mile every day for an entire year, and several will run their age in miles (or kilometers after a specific birthday) to celebrate their birthday each year. The common denominator in this is the streak – once you start on something, it’s harder to break the streak, especially if you mark it on the calendar. 

A critical step in the stackable habits formula, after I (CURRENT HABIT), I will (NEW HABIT), is not to break the chain. As James Clear notes in his book Atomic Habits, as humans, we want to see immediate benefits when setting a goal. While a long-term habit leads to success, we need the daily dopamine reminder to keep at it. By marking one’s accomplishment on a calendar (print or digital), breaking the routine chain (or streak) one has going is harder. 

Small changes in our habits, consistently followed over time, can produce tremendous outcomes. One of the core concepts in our MOR Leaders programs is how to change a habit. We discuss the power of habits during the first workshop to set the stage for success with our goals for the program. Actions such as defensive calendaring, Monday morning strategic, and Friday reflection are based on modifying our behavior or using existing habits to build new leaderly habits. The bottom line is that to change a habit or to shift our mindset on a practice (Identity or Outcome), one must be intentional about the “why.” Take a few minutes of I-Time to reflect on what you want to accomplish as a practice and why this is important to you. What new habit can you stack on an existing habit to start a chain of success? And finally, how will you track your habit (print or digital) so that you can see your progress? 

Further Reading
Atomic Habits: How to Get 1% Better Every Day – James Clear, YouTube
Habit Stacking: How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones, James Clear  
The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg 
The Duolingo effect: How keeping the ‘streak’ is changing people’s behavior, Fast Company

Last week, when considering our individual leadership journeys, we asked when you think an inflection point in your leadership journey first occurred.

  • 23% said before high school
  • 17% said high school
  • 15% said college
  • 23% said on the job
  • 11% said parenting
  • 11% said other or none

Inflection points in our leadership journey, when we see new possibilities in new ways, first happen in various life stages for us, including almost one in four of us being on the job.  This underscores the importance of our openness across life to the leadership lessons available for our learning, and the responsibility when we think about how we can enable such experiences for others.