If you’re anything like me, you have lots of different goals in your life. I’m not just talking about the big, life-changing dreams, but the more everyday goals, too, like eating more healthy food or building up your savings.
And the best way to reach your goals is by forming habits. Habits allow us to automate the process of taking baby steps towards a goal. If you want to build an emergency fund, for instance, then developing habits that encourage you to save money instead of spending it will make the process simple and painless.
Habits allow you to keep making progress towards your goals even when your motivation is low. When it’s 7 o’clock on a Friday evening, it’s easy to order in takeaway instead of cooking dinner – unless you already have a cooking habit, in which case making dinner like you always do is the easy option.
It takes time, however, to build these habits. And until you’ve developed them, you need to rely on motivation and willpower to keep you on track. This is where goal stacking comes in: by giving you multiple sources of motivation for each habit you’re trying to develop, it makes your habits easier to stick to.
What it is
Goal stacking is, quite simply, picking habits that move you towards more than one goal at once. For instance, cooking dinner at home helps you ensure your food is meeting your nutritional goals, while also being cheaper than ordering takeaway or eating out. In other words, you’ve picked a simple habit that, once implemented, will help you on your way to multiple goals.
Why it works
Sticking to habits is easy. Developing them in the first place is much harder. Building habits requires motivation, and motivation is fleeting and fickle. Goal stacking helps by giving you a double dose of motivation for each habit.
One day, you might be extra keen on healthy eating because you had a great weightlifting session and you want to eat the right food for your muscles to recover. A week later, you might be inspired to save money after reading an article about turning your finances around. Both days, you’re going to be more motivated than usual to cook at home, because it directly helps you with both of those goals.
The best bit? You’re taking steps towards two goals at once. That half-hour a day you spend cooking dinner is helping you get your finances in order AND helping you to get healthy. Win-win.
How to do it
The most important thing with goal stacking, of course, is the goals themselves. Spend some time thinking about your goals, and identify 3-5 that you want to work on now. You’ll want some of them to be nice and specific, like ‘build a 3-month emergency fund’, but others can be vaguer, like ‘be healthier’.
Once you have your goals, start thinking of habits that might support them. If you have a mix of specific and broader goals, do it only for the ones that are very specific. For your emergency fund, that might include cooking at home, but perhaps also things like tracking your spending, choosing one day a week for all your non-essential purchases, or walking and taking public transport instead of driving.
Now take a look at those habits, and circle the ones that work for another goal. If you’re wanting to get healthier as well as build an emergency fund, you’d circle ‘cooking at home’ and ‘walk and take public transport’. That doesn’t mean that tracking your spending or limiting your shopping days aren’t helpful, but they aren’t suited to this exercise as they only contribute to a single goal.
Narrow down the list further and select one or two habits to adopt right now. In this case, you might choose just the cooking at home option. Don’t add any more habits until you’re comfortable that this one is truly automatic.
Now, as you work to build the habit, you’ll have a double dose of motivation to help you with that willpower hurdle. Whether you’re feeling particularly inclined to be healthy or extra inspired to save money, you’ll want to make sure you’re cooking your dinner to help you towards that goal.
Goal stacking isn’t a magic bullet. You’re not going to feel inspired and motivated all the time, even with two goals for one habit. And sometimes the best habits for a given goal are ones that are too specialised to be particularly helpful for any other. If you want to get stronger, for instance, then getting into the habit of going to the gym and lifting weights is your best bet, but there aren’t many other goal boxes that habit ticks.
That’s okay. You don’t need to use goal stacking exclusively in order to take advantage of it. Combine habits that are laser-focussed on a single goal with those that help you progress towards multiple goals at once, and you’ll find your habits are easier to stick to and automate.