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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Is Habit Stacking? A Brain Hack To Supercharge Your Life

February 13, 2024
19 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
February 13, 2024
19 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
February 13, 2024
19 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
February 13, 2024
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
February 13, 2024
19 min read

Ever wondered how you can remember the lyrics to a song from 10 years ago, but forget where you placed your keys yesterday? Our brains are wired to follow routines that are reinforced through repetition. When we engage in repeated behaviors, neural pathways within our brain are reinforced, and actions become more automated.

There’s been a lot of talk about habits in psychological circles in the last decade. One concept that’s particularly attention-worthy is habit stacking, an idea popularized by author S. J. Scott. The principle behind it is exactly what it sounds like: adding new habits to ones we’ve already established. It works because small changes can make a big impact over time. 

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Habit stacking might sound like a contemporary life hack, but its roots stretch back over a century. Let’s delve into the studies and findings that show why habit stacking is more than just a buzzword. You’ll soon understand why habit stacking can be your ace in the hole for cutting back on alcohol (and making other positive changes, too!).

History of Habits

The concept of habit stacking actually goes back to an early branch of psychology known as classical conditioning. Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov made waves in this area of research in the mid 1800s with his dogs by showing that behaviors can be conditioned by association. Pavlov observed that his dogs began to associate the sound of a bell with being fed, eventually salivating at the sound alone. You're not a dog, and we're not ringing bells here, but the principle is quite similar. When humans connect a new desired behavior (for example, drinking water) with an old, established habit (such as brushing our teeth), the brain starts associating the two. Over time, skipping the new behavior feels out of place and performing the conditioned action becomes the default behavior.

The Habit Loop

Decades after Pavlov, neuroscientist Ann Graybiel has shown through her research that as habits form, activity patterns in the brain change. Initially, there's a spike in brain activity when a habit starts and another spike when it concludes. As the habit becomes ingrained, the brain activity diminishes in the middle phase. This is referred to as the habit loop, which includes a cue, a routine, and a reward — a concept Graybiel outlined in her 1996 study.

Research shows that the basal ganglia play an especially important role in the habit loop process. When we engage in a behavior repeatedly, the basal ganglia stores this information, ensuring the action becomes more automatic and requires less cognitive effort over time.

Think of it this way: the first time you tried tying your shoelaces, it probably required a lot of focus. Now? You do it effortlessly while holding a conversation or listening to a podcast. This transition from conscious action to automatic behavior is the magic of the basal ganglia.

Habit Stacking

Habit stacking uses the concept of habit loops by introducing a new routine immediately after a cue and before the brain receives its reward. It’s like sneaking a little bonus action into the middle of a well-oiled process. 

The reason habit stacking works so well is that it harnesses the brain’s love for predictability by anchoring the new desired behavior to a well-established one. Our brains are exceptionally efficient, running on auto-pilot for many of our daily activities. They thrive on predictability — so much so that a deviation from routine can sometimes feel "off." This is why missing your morning coffee or forgetting to set your alarm at night might throw your whole day into a spin. 

Habit stacking leverages this need for routine by making the new habit feel like an extension of the old one. Over time, skipping the new habit might even make our brain feel like something's missing!

By introducing a new habit alongside an existing routine, we’re tapping into existing brain circuits and hitching a ride on an already established neural pathway. Instead of creating a whole new one from scratch, we’re adding a slight detour to the one that’s already well-traveled. This makes the integration of a new habit less daunting for the brain.

The Magic of Repetition

There's a saying in neuroscience: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." Research shows that every time we repeat a habit, the connection between the neurons involved in it strengthens. By consistently pairing a new habit with an old one, we’re reinforcing the neural association between the two. The more we practice our habit stack, the stronger the connection becomes, eventually cementing the new habit as a regular part of our routine.

In terms of the basal ganglia, "stacking" a new healthy habit onto an existing one uses the brain's wiring to our advantage. We’re telling our basal ganglia, "Hey, I know you love patterns, so let's add a quick, positive habit to this existing loop!"

The Power of Context

Context plays a pivotal role in our behaviors. Certain environments or triggers can prompt specific actions, often without us even realizing it. Habit stacking utilizes this by tying our new habit to a particular context or trigger. For instance, the act of sitting in your favorite chair in the evening might have once prompted you to pour a drink. By habit stacking, we can reframe this context to instead signal a moment of relaxation, perhaps with a cup of herbal tea, a few minutes with the cat, or a couple rounds of deep breathing.

In 2002, University of California psychologist Wendy Wood presented findings in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science on how our environments shape our habits. The study found that consistent contextual cues, such as specific locations or preceding actions, can trigger habits even if the person wasn’t consciously intending to perform them. In terms of habit stacking, this research underlines the importance of choosing a strong, consistent anchor habit to stack upon.

Building Momentum

The genius of habit stacking lies in its simplicity. Rather than fighting the brain's natural tendencies, we’re working in tandem with them. Understanding why the practice is so effective can give us the confidence and insight needed to make lasting, positive changes.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this process is that it doesn’t demand drastic changes. In a 2005 study published in the British Journal of General Practice, researchers found that even minor alterations in behavior can lead to significant lifestyle modifications over time. When we use habit stacking, we’re gently introducing these small tweaks, setting the stage for larger shifts in the future.

Consistently achieving small wins can be incredibly motivating. When we successfully incorporate a new behavior into an existing routine, we create a ripple effect: we begin to trust our ability to make positive changes, which can spur us on to tackle bigger challenges in the future. 

Habit Stacking and the Alcohol Journey

In the context of cutting back on alcohol, these tiny, seemingly inconsequential adjustments can give us a strategic advantage and snowball into transformative life changes. By understanding the science of habit stacking and harnessing the power of our own brain, we can craft a roadmap towards a healthier, alcohol-reduced future, giving ourselves a fighting chance to rewire those neurons for the better.

Here’s how applying habit stacking to alcohol reduction can truly be a game-changer:

  • Understanding the mechanics of habit change. There's something empowering about understanding the "why" and the "how" of a technique. When we grasp the science behind habit stacking and actively apply it to reduce alcohol, we’re using a method grounded in robust research. This increases our chances of success and bolsters our confidence in the process.
  • Recognizing triggers and responses. Every behavior, including reaching for that glass of wine or beer, is typically triggered by something. It might be stress from a hard day, the social setting of a party, or simply the habit of pouring a drink during a particular TV show. Recognizing these triggers is the first step. Once we’re aware of them, we can introduce an alternative behavior or response, effectively utilizing the principle of habit stacking.
  • Building resilience with new routines. Consistently introducing and practicing healthier routines — such as drinking a glass of sparkling water or practicing some deep breathing exercises instead of reaching for an alcoholic beverage — reinforces our resilience. The familiar action triggers the new habit, and voila, our brain starts to associate the two!

    Over time, these new routines become our default response, reducing our automatic impulse to consume alcohol. Each time we choose a healthier alternative over alcohol — even if it's just once in a week — we’re making a positive change. While it might seem like a tiny step, these moments accumulate. Over weeks and months, we’ll notice that our overall alcohol consumption has decreased, showcasing the potency of these incremental changes.
  • Reframing social and emotional connections. For many of us, alcohol is intertwined with social activities or is used as a coping mechanism for stress. By using habit stacking to introduce alternative behaviors, we’re reframing these connections. Over time, socializing or managing stress won't be synonymous with alcohol. Instead, we might find joy in a mocktail, a refreshing herbal drink, or even a quick workout session to blow off steam.
Action Steps for Habit Stacking

Action Steps for Habit Stacking

Ready to give habit stacking a go? Here are seven unique, interesting, and specific action steps to help you on your journey.

  • Identify your anchors. Look for habits you already have that are non-negotiable: brushing your teeth, making coffee, or taking a shower. These are your "anchors" for new habits.
  • Start small. Choose a small action that supports your goal to cut back on alcohol. This could be as simple as drinking a glass of water before you usually have a drink.
  • Link them up. Connect your new habit to an existing anchor. For example, "After I brush my teeth in the evening, I will drink a glass of water."
  • Use reminders. Physical reminders can be incredibly helpful. Place a glass near your toothbrush to remind yourself to drink water.
  • Keep it consistent. Perform your habit stack at the same time and in the same context daily. Consistency is key to making your new habit stick.
  • Monitor progress. Keep a log to track how often you successfully complete your habit stack. Celebrate your victories, however small. (Try Reframe for an easy way to track your progress and receive inspiration and valuable tips to help you along the way!) 
  • Add more layers. Once you feel that your new habit has become automated, consider adding another layer to your stack. Maybe now, "After I drink my glass of water, I'll write down one thing I'm grateful for today."

Building Life, One Habit at a Time

We’re impatient! We often seek immediate and large-scale changes. Yet the true essence of meaningful growth lies in our consistent, incremental, daily steps. Habit stacking is more than just a technique to introduce a new behavior or cut back on alcohol. It's a holistic approach to life, urging us to recognize the potential in our everyday routines.

As you start building and stacking these habits, consider the broader implications. Every new behavior you add to an existing one nudges you closer to a life marked by intention, health, and well-being. These small shifts, done consistently, can create a ripple effect, touching every facet of your life — from relationships to personal goals, mental well-being, and physical health.

As we begin habit stacking, we’re not just adopting a new strategy; we’re making a profound commitment to ourselves. We’re signaling to our brain and body that every day is an opportunity to build a life that resonates with purpose and meaning. A more meaningful life doesn't require grand gestures. Often, it's the consistent, purposeful steps we take daily that lead us to our most cherished destinations. This path is scientifically backed and has helped many people turn the daunting task of lifestyle change into manageable, bite-sized pieces.

In the words of Lao Tsu, habits are the building blocks of our lives: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Ready to stack your way to a better you? Let's make it happen!

Summary FAQs

1. What is habit stacking?

Habit stacking involves pairing a new habit with an already established one. By doing this consistently, the new behavior becomes just as routine as the original one, allowing you to introduce positive changes without feeling overwhelmed.

2. How does the brain play a role in habit formation?

The brain, particularly a region called the basal ganglia, stores repetitive behaviors, making them more automatic over time. As you keep doing something (like tying your shoelaces), it shifts from a conscious action to an automatic behavior, thanks to this part of the brain.

3. Can you explain the habit loop?

Absolutely! The habit loop comprises three components: a cue (or trigger), a routine (the actual habit), and a reward (a positive reinforcement that reinforces the habit). Recognizing and understanding this loop can aid in integrating new habits more seamlessly.

4. Why is repetition vital in habit stacking?

Repetition strengthens the neural connections associated with a behavior. The more you consistently repeat a new habit paired with an old one, the stronger this association becomes in the brain. Over time, this ensures that the new behavior gets embedded as a routine.

5. How can small changes have a significant impact on my life?

Small behavioral changes, when done consistently, can accumulate over time, leading to substantial life modifications. In the context of reducing alcohol consumption, every time you opt for a healthier choice, you're paving the way for broader positive shifts in your lifestyle.

6. Why is understanding context crucial in habit stacking?

Context, like specific locations or preceding actions, can act as triggers for habits. By identifying and using these consistent cues, you can more effectively integrate new habits into your daily routines.

7. How can habit stacking assist in alcohol reduction?

Habit stacking helps identify triggers that might prompt alcohol consumption and introduces healthier alternative behaviors. By consistently choosing these alternatives and creating new routines, you gradually reduce the impulse to consume alcohol and reinforce resilience against it.

Revamp Your Life With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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