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.
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:
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.
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 do you stick to your morning routine?
Benjamin Spall is a copywriter and curator of inspiring morning routines at mymorningroutine.com, bringing you a brand new, inspiring morning routine every Wednesday.