By Phil Slade
In 2007, researchers at Oxford University discovered that babies have 41% more neurons than the average adult1. 41%! With adults being so much smarter than a new-born – where do all the neurons go??
Well, the answer lies in the old saying – use it or lose it. It’s called neural pruning. As we form habits we strengthen the neural connections those habits stimulate, and our brain cuts off the excess ones that aren’t needed if they aren’t used for a while. As adults, this means that we have some pretty strong neural pathways that make our habitual behaviours easy. However, creating new habits is asking the brain to create new neural pathways, using leftover neurons that may not have been used much, which is effortful and painful — and no one likes that.
This is the power of habit stacking. By building new habits on the back of ones that already exist, our brain needs to do less work, build fewer new neural pathways. New habits that aren’t logically connected to old ones are much harder to create and maintain. Think of what you do with your dishes after dinner. For me I have a habit of having dinner, once finished I put my dishes in the dishwasher, then I clean the leftover dishes and pots in the sink and wipe the bench. Here I have a series of habits that are stacked on top of one another:
I have ‘stacked’ my habitual chores onto the habit of eating. It takes little effort and I actually feel good once it’s done. I haven’t had to forge completely new neural pathways for each task, just built on the ones I already have.
This is why we strongly encourage teachers to ‘habit stack’ the emotional check-in with something else they do each day (ie. taking the roll or morning reflection time). This makes it feel easier to do, creates new habitual behaviours more quickly, and increases the likelihood of the class sticking with the new behaviour.
Habit stacking works in all aspects of life. I habit stack my exercise into my morning routine, and I stack the habit of stretching whenever I find myself waiting for the kettle to boil. Habit stacking is a powerful behavioural tool and one we can all make our lives easier by leveraging.
1Excess of Neurons in the Human Newborn Mediodorsal Thalamus Compared with That of the Adult by Maja Abitz, Rune Damgaard Nielsen, Edward G. Jones, Henning Laursen, Niels Graem and Bente Pakkenberg