How can small changes get you big results in your career, health, and relationships?
We are all creatures of habit, whether we acknowledge it or not. Every morning is filled with habits we have routinely kept for years, from brushing teeth to making coffee. The difficult part is when we try to add new and healthier habits into our personal lives and careers. But what if creating better routines was as simple as ‘stacking’ habits together?
Steve Scott is a Wall Street Journal best-selling author of over 70 books. He's a leading expert on developing good habits. In fact, his new book is Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve your Health, Wealth, and Happiness. I recently interviewed Steve for the LEADx Podcast, where we talked about his foolproof (and simple) method to creating better habits. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: What do you mean by the term habit stacking? Why is it so powerful?
Steve Scott: The way I look at it is, you want to sit down and think of your goals and think of the habits that you should do to complete those goals. A lot of them are 30 minutes to two hours a day of daily effort, but some of them are just these small, tiny goals that are easy to slip through the cracks.
My premise is you take all these goals that you know you're supposed to be doing on a daily basis and you group them together. You put them together in a morning routine, or an afternoon routine, or build them off a different part of your day.
What this does is remove the cognitive load and the stress of, “All right. I have to do these 10 different tasks.” You go through this one simple checklist. You do all these habits all in a row, and you can actually start your day or end your day with a series of major wins.
I took a lot of this by The Checklist Manifesto from Atul Gawande. The idea is, you run your life through a bunch of checklists. You don't necessarily have to think about all these habits. You just pull up the checklist and complete habits one through seven and then you can carry on with the rest of your day.
Kruse: Give me an example from your own life. Are you still using a physical checklist, or does it become automatic?
Scott: I'll answer that second question first. At a certain point, you don't necessarily need the checklist. I use it as a reminder. Even though I know a certain routine, I've done it dozens, and sometimes hundreds of times, I still like to pull up the checklist, just in case something slips my mind. But for the most part, it is internalized, by this point, for the stacks I've had forever. Two specific examples. I would say one of them is for exercising. A lot of the reason that people don't exercise is because they come up with all these creative excuses for why they're not exercising. Excuses like, “Oh, it's bad weather outside, so I can't go out and do my run,” or, “I forgot my shoes,” or—actually, yesterday, this happened to me—I forgot my biking pants. “I don't have enough time today,” or “I'm hungry.” All those various excuses.
A good habit stack for that would be: You wake up in the morning. You schedule your workout. You identify, right when you wake up, when exactly you're going to be working out that day. You also add about 30 minutes of a buffer time. You schedule it into your calendar like you would any other appointment.
You check the weather. I know this seems like a silly thing, but if suddenly at four o'clock, when you're supposed to go out and exercise, there's a lightning storm? You could have easily solved that by checking the weather. You can almost create an if/then logic statement that, “All right, if it's raining outside, then I'll do a workout at the gym.”
I like to give myself multiple ways to get a workout in, just in case something doesn't work out. Also, bring a bag of food if you get hungry right before a workout. Make sure you have all your equipment.
It's silly things like this, but if you put it together in a little, quick, five-minute routine, where you run down, “Do I have all these things with me?” Then you can easily follow through with your commitment to exercising.
That's an example for exercising. There's one that I do for book marketing. I do this first thing in the morning. I wake up. I'll go through the top 100 best sellers list on Amazon. That's the way with myself and our mutual friend Patrick King. We always like to see what's going on in the marketplace. I like to run through my Amazon ads, also my BooBub ads, and run a split test on at least one of my Squeeze pages.
Now, these are technical book marketing terms, but these are what I would consider the 80/20 of my business. These certain things that don't take very long, but they produce a huge positive impact on my business. I make sure that before I even start my writing every single day, I spend about 20 to 30 minutes doing these certain things to help move the needle for my book sales.
Kruse: One thing I never miss in the morning is coffee, so I put my vitamins and water next to the coffee machine so I never forget to take them. Is this a kind of form of stacking?
Scott: That's exactly what I would recommend. You take an existing habit and you start attaching stuff to it. That really is, I guess, what you call an ‘anchor’ habit. That's what I would consider a trigger, so you already have the coffee. You have the trigger. I do the same thing, almost exactly what you described. I wake up in the morning. I weigh myself. I fill up a 32 ounce Contigo bottle. I find having a giant bottle, having to fill it twice a day, instead of having to fill small cups. You're supposed to drink eight cups of eight ounces of water. I'd rather just fill a ginormous bottle and sip it throughout the day.
Stuff like that. I'll start the teakettle for my wife. I'll do the dishes, review goals, go over my priority goals. I have a really quick, 20-minute routine that leads into my book sales habit stack and then my writing habits. It's almost like boom, boom, boom. Within the first hour and a half, I've done two dozen things.
Kruse: I'm just curious, on a personal level, how long is it before you get into your writing habit?
Scott: I would say it's a good, solid hour, give or take. There's some days where I'll look at a specific habit. I'm like, “I'm just not in the mood.” I do give myself permission to skip certain things. It's mostly things that are kind of important, but they're not really that important. For the most part, the health stuff I never skip and the book marketing stuff I tend not to skip.
So I would say it's a solid hour from waking up, to sitting down, to writing. I find that if I get into a writing zone, I used to skip a lot of the book marketing stuff. As much as I used to say, “Focus on deep work first thing in the morning,” I've changed my viewpoint a little bit, just for me personally, to do the things I know help sell books and then get into my deep work, which is writing.
Kruse: It’s said that our cognitive peak is the one to two hours after waking. I tend to take that time to get ready for my day instead.
Scott: Yeah, I think there's something to that, like your ideas start percolating, especially if you're in the middle of the book. I'm trying to think of other examples besides writing, because I'm sure not everyone listening to this is a writer. Whatever you have to do, it's almost like you're doing the work in your mind, especially if you're doing something completely monotonous, like the dishes, or something where it's manual labor, but it gives your mind an opportunity to think of what you have to do for the day.
I think there is something about going from waking up to being fully engaged with something. You need that buffer, especially if you review your goals and start to think of what you need to do that day. You get a little bit of excitement. I think you carry over that motivation into your first major task.
Kruse: What would be some other habits that would maybe help our audience in their career at work?
Scott: I'll list off four of them. I know you mentioned it before, but I'm a firm believer in this myself. Always start your day by scheduling, and focusing, and starting with your three MITs, the Most Important Things. I'm pretty sure your listeners have heard this before.
Wake up, identify the tasks that are super important or urgent at that moment and get started with those first. One of the things I do recommend is to work on those long term, important but not urgent. For me, it's like writing a book. No one's necessarily beating down the door to get you to work on it, but you know it's important for your long term success. I would say one of your first three MITs should be that activity.
Another one, and this is a little bit anal retentive, but I find it's done wonders for me, is to track your time. I literally mean create 10 to 15 categories of whatever you do for your career. It could be one of them is email, one of them is a deep work activity, one of them is meetings. You really want to break down whatever you do into different buckets and to literally track it.
The app that I use is called aTimeLogger, and you can find it at atimelogger.com. You just create the different categories on the app itself and run a timer every time you're engaging in one of these activities. Right now, I'm actually running the podcast interview tracker for this particular conversation.
It seems a little bit obsessive, but what you can do is, at the end of the month, you can look at the different time spent in all these different buckets and start to do an analysis. If you find that you're spending 20% or 30% of your time in admin activities that really don't help your career, then maybe you should start to switch things around or try to find ways to eliminate time spent, and not in that particular wrong category. That's number two.
I would also put metrics behind your important outcomes. The old adage “What gets measured gets managed.” I like to keep track of my word counts. If you're a salesperson, then keep track of how many people you've talked to, how many potential people you're trying to sell to, how many of those converted. Whatever is the number one important part of your job, try to put as much metrics behind it as possible.
Also, I guess, number four would be an ongoing list of tasks. What I like to do is, I actually have a WordPad file that I have kept open at all times. Every time I do an activity, I write it down. The idea here is a little bit of what you talk about with your DDR technique (Delete, Delegate, Redesign), is once you have this ongoing list of all the things you do on a daily basis, look for things that you can delete, look for things you can delegate, or look for things that you can redesign, or get off your plate.
I'm constantly doing that. I have a virtual assistant. I'm looking for ways to have her take stuff off my plate or sometimes look for different tasks that I can completely remove. The best way to find it, I find, is to have that ongoing list that you're constantly updating.
I know I just dumped a bunch of things all at once, but those are four major ones that help.
Kruse: The aTimeLogger, is that a website or an app on the phone?
Scott: That's an app. I think it's both the Android and the iOS devices. Ninety percent of people should be able to access it. I think it is a paid app. I think it's a couple bucks. You can track your time other ways. I just find that that's the one app that really is pretty easy to figure out and use.
Kruse: I always try to challenge our listeners to become 1% better every single day. Challenge us to start us off of this habit-stacking journey.
Scott: The one thing I would recommend is applying the 80/20 rule. I'm sure someone's talked about this before on your podcast, the idea that 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your efforts.
I would challenge your listeners to identify “What is your 80/20? What is the one thing that makes a huge difference in your career?” From there, I would challenge you to track your time obsessively. Maybe you only have to do it for a couple weeks, but try to track your time obsessively and look for ways to remove the things that are getting in the way of your 80/20. If you find that you're spending way too much time in email, then maybe apply Kevin's DDR technique. Try to find ways to streamline the time that you're spending on your email so that you can spend more time doing your 80/20 task.
Honestly, on a weekly basis, just look for ways to keep on improving that and improving that. My goal, for myself, is to spend 50% of my time writing and marketing my books and any time a task gets in the way of that, I'm pretty ruthless with removing it or getting rid of it.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.