Habit-stacking is a psychological tool that can help you build new habits more easily that can change your mindset and help you achieve your goals. An expert explains how to use the technique to overcome feelings of self-doubt at work.
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One of the biggest aspects of our lives to be shaken up by the coronavirus pandemic has been our careers. Things like working from home and experiencing furlough have sent our working lives into flux and even as lockdown eases, many of us are still facing huge career turbulence. It’s no coincidence that terms like ‘the Great Resignation’ and ‘turnover tsunami’ are starting to trend online, with UK surveys showing that a quarter of workers are prepared to quit their jobs.
Even before the pandemic, research found that women were significantly less confident than men at work, despite there being no difference between the performance and ability in men and women.
“Feelings of inadequacy and insecurity at work can come from various places,” says Amy Leighton, a mindset and confidence coach. “It can stem from a lack of self-belief in your own abilities or feeling you’re not being recognised for doing a good job. It can also stem from a lack of career clarity, comparing yourself to others, becoming crippled by a fear of failure and even fearing the word ‘success’ because it’s associated with over-working and burnout.”
Ultimately, how we feel about ourselves then feeds into the actions we take, Amy explains. “If we think we’re not good enough, then we start to hold ourselves back.”
To curb this cycle of negative thoughts leading to self-doubt, many experts recommend a technique called ‘habit-stacking’. It works by helping us develop new habits over time by linking a new behaviour to an everyday task we already perform in our routines. Eventually, the habit will slowly start to stick and we can use it to alter our mindset and achieve our goals.
Here, we ask experts in confidence coaching and psychology to explain how habit-stacking works, what it does to our brains and how you can use it to help overcome self-doubt at work.
What is ‘habit-stacking’?
The phrase ‘habit-stacking’ was coined in 2014 by author SJ Scott and further popularised by James Clear’s 2018 New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits.
The technique works by connecting a new behaviour to something you already do, in order to pick up a successful new habit.
“Habit-stacking is all about harnessing the power of mini-habits to build a bigger, major habit,” says Dr Meg Arroll, a chartered psychologist with wellbeing brand Healthspan.
“By clustering a series of small behaviours together, we can use mental short-cuts to establish a new set of actions that lead to an overarching, healthy behavioural pattern. By linking a habit-stack to something we already do every day, new habits are more likely to be integrated into our routines.”
How does habit-stacking work?
Habit-stacking works by attaching a new habit to something we already do every day.
For example, you could start getting into the habit of meditating every day by starting to do it for five minutes while you prepare your breakfast each morning. Or, you could get into the routine of listing things you’re grateful for by cataloguing them for two minutes while you brush your teeth.
“By linking a new habit to something you already do it helps you live it out in practice,” says Amy. “If you want to run a marathon, just putting your trainers on and then taking them off again could be your tiny little habit. Then you can get used to doing that as part of your routine, turning that into running for two minutes and building from there.”
How does habit-stacking affect the brain?
“Habit-stacking utilises strong neural connections that allow habits to become automatic,” says Dr Arroll. “Attaching a new mini-habit to an established behaviour will allow the new action to flow down this path rather than needing to build a new neural association which takes more effort.”
Amy uses a ski-slope analogy to describe habit-stacking’s effect on the brain: “More well-used ski slopes are easy to ski on because they’ve been well-trodden and used a lot over time. Less well-used ski slopes are harder to use. Our brain works the same way. By connecting new neural pathways to well-trodden pathways we do every day it makes it easier for us to pick up.”
How can habit-stacking help me overcome self-doubt at work?
How does this relate to overcoming self-doubt at work? Well, it’s all to do with relishing in our small successes and, ultimately, changing our mindset towards work.
“Successfully developing healthier habits increases self-confidence and diminishes self-doubt because we feel more in control of our lives when we know we can develop new patterns,” says Dr Arroll. “We all know how demotivating it is to start a new healthy habit, and a few weeks later it’s gone out the window. This feeling of failure is detrimental to confidence and self-esteem so methods that make it as easy as possible to integrate new daily behaviours into our lives are beneficial.”
Amy suggests pinpointing exactly where any problems lie when it comes to confidence at work. Is it due to a lack of career progression or a feeling of isolation? Think about how you can solve this issue and then work on building the solution into your routine.
“I had a client who is a designer who didn’t know what they wanted to achieve in their career,” says Amy. “They decided to start visualising their work goals by drawing what they wanted to achieve every morning while they got ready for work.”
“If you’re suffering from burnout and you feel you need a better work-life balance you might take time for yourself by working in meditation into your day and getting into the habit of doing it for one minute every day while the kettle’s boiling,” Amy adds.
How to use ‘habit-stacking’ successfully
Make sure you have a reason for creating a new habit
“With any type of behaviour change, make sure you know your internal motivation for doing it as this will help during difficult times when our brain nudges us back to older, firmly set habits,” says Dr Arroll.
Don’t create too many habits at one time
Make sure you keep your habits achievable by gradually starting with one stack of habits before building in additional stacks. “The point here is to break down routines into small, achievable clusters,” says Dr Arroll.
Keep it quick
Each mini-habit should take no more than five minutes to complete. “It should be simple,” Dr Arroll adds. “A behaviour that will improve your quality of life and the sequence should follow a logical process which fits into your day.”
Keep a checklist
It’s useful to keep a checklist of your habit stacks to make the actions easy to remember and stick to. “This is key to habit-stacking because if the process is too effortful, it’s less likely to be established in our busy lives,” Dr Arroll explains.
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Images: Getty, courtesy of Amy Leighton and Dr Meg Arroll