Habit stack or willpower?

Habit stack

Caught out! Now I know their secret.

I provide business coaching to mid-tier and senior business managers and leaders. What I keep noticing is that some of these people are super-productive each day without getting exhausted. So what’s their secret? They habit stack.

A Duke University study concludes that 45% of our daily activities are habits, not decision-making. That’s a big chunk and yet it makes sense. If I had to concentrate every time I shower, brush my teeth, tie my shoelaces, I would never have brain-energy left to plan, to prioritize.

Habits save brain power

When habits are built, the brain powers down. Our repeated behavioural patterns are handed over to the basal ganglia nuclei. The basal ganglia are strongly interconnected with the cerebral cortex as well as other brain areas. They are associated with a variety of functions including routine behaviours. Patterns form here that are then executed automatically. So the pre-frontal cortex, where we are making decisions, hands over control to the basal ganglia.

How does this help us? It means that we no longer need to use large amounts of brain-energy. Deliberate habit patterns get built into habit stacks that are then assigned to the basal ganglia that says, “Oh yes, I know what to do at this time of day.”

An example of this is my own habit of getting up at 5:30am, putting on the electric jug, then slipping under the shower to fully wake up. Then it’s out from the shower, clean teeth, and do 7-8 minutes of stretches on my nearby yoga mat. One ritualised action moves to the next one in an automatic way. Why? Because I have repeated these actions so often my brain is saving the energy and not needing to decide what to do next. This is a habit stack. My brain remembers what happens next. It is stored in the basal ganglia.

Build habit stacks to save energy for willpower

We used to think that willpower was something we either had, or did not have. Now the neurosciences are showing us that willpower is in fact, like a muscle. The more we use it, the more tired it gets. So the people I coach who have strong supportive habit stacks are then able to free up their willpower-energy for specific times and activities in their work day. And these may be for three or four things or events per day.

The secret of these super-accomplished people is that they have ritualized much of what they do each day into habit patterns. One repeated behavior is linked onto another in a stack. A habit stack.

Start by noticing an existing habit that works for you

The principle for us to steal and replicate is this: the more we habitualise our lives, the more energy we have left over for decision-making tasks. Start by noticing an existing habit that works for you and consider what new tiny habit you could shoehorn in and link to the existing one.

Happy habit stacking.



B. J. Fogg recommends a similar strategy in his Ted Talk, Forget big change, start with a tiny habit.

Image by Simon Petrel

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