Tony Wolski

Implementing Atomic Habits


This year I’ve been using Jerry Seinfeld’s Don’t Break the Chain method to try and exercise every day. Each day I exercise I put an X in my Bullet Journal monthly spread. If I miss a day I get a big blank spot and a broken chain. The idea is that motivation comes from not wanting to break the streak of Xs you’ve built up. Seinfeld used the method to ensure he was writing jokes every day. My experiment is working well; I’ve exercised on 53 of a possible 59 days to date. However there is always room for improvement, 6 out of 59 days worth of improvement.

The motivation I get from wanting to keep my streak alive is significant. On a number of occasions I’ve been ready to get into bed before remembering I hadn’t exercised that day, so I’ve busted out a few sets of max push-ups beside the bed in my pyjamas, just to keep the streak alive. But I’ve learned that I can’t always rely on Don’t break the chain motivation, or my memory, to get me over the line. Enter habit stacking and temptation bundling, two techniques I learned recently from a book called Atomic Habits (see my book notes here).

Habit stacking + temptation bundling

The habit stacking technique is outlined in Atomic Habits in the section called 1st Law of Behaviour Change: Make it Obvious

One of the best ways to to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behaviour on top.

The habit stacking formula is:


Temptation bundling is described in 2nd Law of Behaviour Change: Make it Attractive:

Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.

Habit stacking and temptation bundling combine to form a powerful formula for behaviour change. The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is:

  1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].
  2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

So the idea is that you choose a habit that is already engrained and stack a habit you need (but is not yet a habit) on top. To make the habit you need more attractive, you add a habit you really want on the end. When you’ve completed the habit you need you’re free to enjoy the habit you want.

My implementation

My goal was to eliminate days where I was forgetting to exercise until the last minute. I decided my morning coffee was the ideal current habit to latch onto. I love my morning coffee, the smell of the grounds as I spoon them into the Bialetti coffee maker I set out the night before. The process has become a daily ritual, and is therefore a perfect candidate to build upon.

Using the habit stacking + temptation bundling formula I created this implementation intention:

  1. After I prepare my morning coffee but before I switch it on, I will do at least one set of exercise (push-ups, pull-ups, pistol squats or yoga).
  2. After at least one set of exercise, I will finish making my coffee and sit down to enjoy it.

It’s early days — I’ve only completed 9 days of this routine thus far — but it is working so well that I can’t see myself stumbling. I’m unlikely to forget making my morning coffee because it’s typically the first thing I do in the morning (obvious). Sitting down to enjoy it is something I really enjoy (attractive). By sandwiching a habit I need (daily exercise) between the two I dramatically increase the likelihood my streak of Xs remains unbroken.

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