Shift from Resolution to Habit Formation: The One Tool You Need to Build Better Habits

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If you've ever made New Year's resolutions but failed to keep them, you may wonder, "is there a better way?" Resolutions often fail because they are unrealistic, non-specific, not measurable, or poorly planned. Even the most popular New Year's resolutions—surrounding physical health, weight loss, and eating habits—are not lived out as intended. Only about 55% of people are successful in sustaining their resolutions after one year.

As the traditional resolution might seem destined to fail, having an alternative plan of action is a helpful, perhaps more achievable way to see your goals come to life. Habit stacking, for instance, just may be the key to helping you create lasting, effective change.

This article will explain how habit stacking may be a better method to set you up for success in reaching your health goals. The concept is based on the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, which you can read for a more in-depth explanation of habit-stacking techniques.

What Is Habit Stacking?

The concept of habit stacking starts with understanding how the network of neurons in the brain help support current behaviors. Neurons are brain cells that transmit information between different areas of the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Everything we do, think, and feel is because of the 'information messengers' known as neurons.

It turns out that the more you do something, the stronger and more efficient the neuron connections become. If you use that base to build new habits, you may have more success.

"One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top," says author James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. "This is called habit stacking. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit."

For example, say you habitually brush your teeth every morning. If you need to take vitamin D but are forgetful, try taking it right after your brush your teeth. Stacking these habits together makes it easier to remember.

Stages of Habit Stacking

Clear writes that habit stacking has four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward.

  1. The cue is the trigger that starts your habit. For example, You wake up and have morning breath.
  2. The craving is the motivation behind the habit and the desire to act. For example, the morning breath prompts you to brush your teeth because you crave a clean mouth.
  3. A response is the habit you perform. In this case, the response is brushing your teeth.
  4. A reward is the benefit you gain from doing the habit. In this case, the response to brushing your teeth is a fresh, minty, clean mouth.

Clear says "if a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. Eliminate the cue and your habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won’t experience enough motivation to act. Make the behavior difficult and you won’t be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future."

Why Is Habit Stacking Better than Making Resolutions?

Habit stacking works well because it builds new habits or goals onto your current habits, which are already built into your brain. You're more likely to adopt a new habit if you stack it on top of a well-worn pattern or behaviors that you have practiced for many years.

Resolutions are usually broad statements without a formal plan, such as "I will exercise more" or "I will lose weight." Habit stacking is more precise since it links your new goal to a cycle that is already built into your brain. That makes it more likely that you’ll stick to the new behavior.

The resolution "I will exercise more" is more likely to become a ritual if it's more specific and is stacked with an existing activity. For example, "after my morning coffee, I will do 10 push-ups." Your cue is coffee, your craving is muscle growth from push-ups, your response is push-ups, and your reward is working toward bettering your physical fitness.

How to Habit Stack Wellness Goals

Since habits are stacked, you don't have to stop after the first layer; you can keep going. To draw on an earlier example, let's say you have your morning coffee, then do some exercise. What can you stack on top of that? Maybe after exercising you will eat breakfast or remember to take your medication or supplement. The goal is to create a routine.

"Overall, habit stacking allows you to create a set of simple rules that guide your future behavior," explains Clear. "It’s like you always have a game plan for which action should come next. Once you get comfortable with this approach, you can develop general habit stacks to guide you whenever the situation is appropriate."

Habit stacking works best when the triggering cue (i.e. have my morning coffee) is very specific. If you select a vague cue (i.e. when the phone rings), it's less likely to work as the timing is not specific, or it's not guaranteed to happen. 

It’s like you always have a game plan for which action should come next. Once you get comfortable with this approach, you can develop general habit stacks to guide you whenever the situation is appropriate.


Start by making a list of your current cues (wake up, brush teeth, have breakfast, etc.), then layer your desired new habit into your lifestyle. Decide what you crave and what you need to do to satisfy that craving with a response. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Improved Eating Habits

Some ideas to improve eating habits are:

  • After I make lunch, I will pour myself a tall glass of water
  • After I go grocery shopping, I will prep a container of sliced vegetables to snack on for the week
  • After I make breakfast, I will take my vitamin D supplement

Improved Sleep Hygiene

Some ideas to improve sleep hygiene are:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will shut the light so the room is dark
  • After I watch the news, I will turn off the TV and go to bed at the same time each night
  • After I plug in my phone to charge, I will set an alarm and get up at the same time every morning

Achieve Fitness Goals

Some ideas to achieve fitness goals are:

  • After I make my coffee, I will go for a 15-minute walk
  • After I brush my teeth in the morning, I will do 5 minutes of sit-ups
  • After I turn on the TV, I will stretch for 10 minutes

You can stack other habits onto this as well. For example: After I make coffee, I will go for a 15-minute walk. After my walk, I will check my emails. After I check emails, I will reply to the most pressing matters, etc.

Promote Mindfulness/Reduce Stress

  • After I wake up, I will use an app to read motivational statements for 2 minutes
  • After I have lunch, I will meditate for 5 minutes
  • After I get into bed each night, I will write down three things I am grateful for today

A Word From Verywell

Habit stacking is a great way to add small, meaningful changes to your day and slowly get used to new routines. Building upon your well-worn daily tasks provides built-in reminders to stack your new habits onto. As you create goals, remember to consider your cue, craving, response and reward, and make your goals realistic and achievable.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bjerke MB, Renger R. Being smart about writing SMART objectivesEval Program Plann. 2017;61:125-127. doi:10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2016.12.009

  2. Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A. A large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One. 2020;15(12):e0234097. Published 2020 Dec 9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0234097

  3. James Clear. How to build new habits by taking advantage of old ones.

  4. NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Brain Basics: The life and death of neurons

  5. James Clear. How to start new habits that actually stick.

  6. CDC. Tips for better sleep.

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.

Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. A wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

Learn about our editorial process