Habit Stacking for Mental Health: The Ultimate Guide

“Get better mental health.” It’s a goal that sounds relatively simple — it’s not like you’re trying to take over the world, right? Yet when it comes down to it, reaching that “better mental health” stage is easier said than done.

How do you intentionally improve your mental health? One step at a time and through the creation of healthy habits.

Habits describe regular routines or practices. These behaviors are done every day or often enough that they occur automatically and without thought. Small steps that improve your mood and overall well-being are excellent additions to your daily routine, and can be attained through a behavioral strategy called habit stacking. What is habit stacking? We’ve put together a guide to habit stacking for mental health so you can feel balanced, energized, and whole.

Notebook that says goals and plans on it, on a table next to a cup of coffee and a laptop

What is habit stacking?

Habit stacking is an effective way of building new healthy mental health habits by leveraging already-existing routines. Because your brain and body are so used to your current routine — which could include waking up, then getting dressed, then drinking a cup of coffee — using your current routine as a springboard for new habits can be an effective way to instigate change.

Any habit can be difficult to start, even those that aren’t mental health habits. Many people feel immense motivation to make a change at the beginning, however struggle to maintain that change after a few weeks

The concept of habit stacking was created by a behavior scientist named BJ Fogg. Fogg wrote and published the Tiny Habits Program, which bases itself on the brain’s natural functionality. The brain relies on neural connections — the stronger the neural connection, the easier it is for the brain to complete an action. As an example, when someone has 10 years of experience speaking a second language, the neural connections in their brain responsible for understanding and producing that language become so strong that they hardly have to think during a conversation. If your brain has strong neural connections for your daily routines, you can piggyback off of these connections with a new behavior. This is called habit stacking.

What are healthy habits?

Healthy habits are small routines that promote well-being. They can be habits that focus on your physical health or your emotional health — which are often connected.

Healthy habits not only help you feel comfortable in the moment, but they also set you up for sustained well-being. By taking care of yourself, you’re prioritizing your health, which pays off in the long run as it leads to stronger connections to others, a greater sense of meaning, and resilience in the face of challenges.

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What habits improve mental health?

There are so many types of habits that, when implemented and maintained, improve mental health. A few examples of healthy habits include:

Not everyone is going to benefit from the same habits. The habits that are right for you will depend on your lifestyle and your preferences. Do you prefer to sleep in? Then perhaps the morning isn’t the best time to schedule a workout. Do you enjoy socializing after work? Then you might not want to plan a 6pm solitary meditation. It might take some trial and error to find the behavior that’s most helpful for your well-being, but being thoughtful about what would actually help you means that you’re setting yourself up for success.

How to stack habits

Once you decide which behavior you want to turn into a habit, it’s time to start habit stacking. Here’s how habit stacking works:

The next step is to be consistent. Dedicate yourself to being intentional about your routines, so that even when you would rather go to bed instead of doing a mindfulness exercise, you’ll find the motivation. Being consistent will also help those habits stick so that they lead to lasting change.

Start with small changes

Small increments of healthy behaviors have the potential to help you lift your mood and improve your overall mental health into the future. Changing your life starts with small changes.

If you’re just starting with habit stacking, try to find an easy, bite-sized action to add to your routine. Perhaps you pick one habit to add in, rather than taking on several at the same time. Or you could pick what you think is the easiest habit to implement, which can give you the momentum you need to tackle larger habits next. This way, you don’t become overwhelmed by the amount of change in your life — or burn through your willpower reserve, leaving nothing left. Going too big, too fast can lead to frustration and abandonment of your mission to improve your mental health.

Examples of stacking habits for mental health

Ready to give it a try? Here are a few examples of how you can stack habits for mental health:

You can even extend your stacks to include multiple behaviors in a row. This could look like:

Each piece of the process is a cue for the next piece. This is why it’s called “stacking” — and your stacks can get as big as you would like!

Consider support from a therapist

Working with a therapist is a great way to maintain your motivation to make healthy changes. Building new habits is hard, even when you feel motivated. Some days, you’ll feel the fireworks of progress. Other days, you’ll feel like the last thing you want to do is complete your routine.

Therapists can give you the support you need to stay consistent in your daily routines, and to find the habits that will be the most effective in boosting your mental health. Therapy is a space to talk openly about how you’re feeling, and can help you benchmark your progress. Your therapist will be your cheerleader. They’ll also give you an outside perspective and ideas to reflect upon as you continue to improve your mental health.

To find a great therapist who is right for you, check out Zencare’s therapist directory. You can watch introductory videos to get a sense of the therapist’s style, or you can learn about what types of therapy they specialize in. By working with a therapist, you can be intentional about making lasting change.