Stacking Habits

How to consistently improve your physical, financial, and spiritual health

TLDR: By intentionally creating a set of complimentary healthy habits, you build a positive feedback loop generating consistent momentum that improves your health, wealth, and spiritual practice.

I’ve never stuck to a budget, workout regimen, or spiritual practice.

Money has just kind of always flowed in and flowed out and I’ve never been all that conscious of it. Just thinking about thinking about it has always brought me anxiety.

I’ve never had a consistent workout regime. Sure, I’d run 2–4 times a week sporadically or get into a hardcore workout routine for a couple months, but I’ve never been able to really ingrain physical fitness into my routine.

At different points in my life I’ve been very consistent with my daily spiritual practice, but over the last few years, it’s been erratic at best.

One day this August, I woke up and realized that I’m kinda flabby and weak — fiscally, physically, and spiritually. A thought occurred to me:

I want to move through the world from a place of strength and stability.

I knew that if I maintained the status quo, I’d slowly put on weight, always be worrying about money and feel spiritually dry. So I needed to disrupt the status quo by adding new rhythms into my life. I decided on one goal for each area:

Physical — 4 workouts per week.
Financial — hit my daily personal burn rate (see below).
Spiritual — morning spiritual practice 6 days a week.

What surprised me…

was that if I intentionally structured my week these goals complimented each other very well.

By choosing to create 3 complimentary habits, I was more successful than just focusing on one.

I’m sure there’s a real term for this phenomenon. I just call it stacking habits. In the same way that there are downward spirals, stacking habits create upward cycles. Positive behavior begets more positive behavior.

Finding a rhythm.

I’ve always thought of budgets and routines as boring and an impediment to my freedom / flexibility. But I’ve been learning that a little bit of structure actually creates freedom. Specifically, the more I set a rhythm to my week, the more positive outcomes I receive.

I decided that if I want to hit the gym 4 days a week and still have a social life, I’d have to be smart about it. So, I decided to front load my week — aiming to workout Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. So, by the time Thursday hits, I’ve met my goal for the week and can chill over the weekend if I want.

Surprisingly, by committing to workout (often, but not always in the morning) early in the week, I found myself going out less from Sunday through Wednesday nights. Which means, I’m not spending much money those nights. That generally put me under my daily budget on those nights, which affords me a little extra cash for date night or going out with friends on the weekend.

It also means that I’m getting to bed earlier, getting at least 7 hours of sleep, and waking up earlier. (I’ll save my tirade on the importance of sleep for another post. Suffice it to say… SLEEP IS REALLY IMPORTANT.) Being well rested allows me to actually be present and not just go through the routine of my spiritual practice.

You’ll notice that for me, exercise was the first domino in the chain reaction of healthier living. Not just because of the physical benefits, but because of the way it enables other healthy habits.

Exercise is known as a keystone habit — a habit, once formed, that creates an upward spiral of other positive behavior in life.

Why is this? Well, it seems that exercise is a great way to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. When you can face hitting the wall at mile 20 in a marathon, suddenly that deadline at work, chores around the house, or challenge in your relationship, managing finances, and spiritual disciplines seem more manageable.

Simple, binary goals

I’ve tried setting goals by a number of different clever systems, but what I’ve learned is that if the goal isn’t simple and measurable, I won’t achieve it consistently. For me, simple goals are binary — I either achieved the goal or I didn’t. This makes measurement much easier.

I’m sure this won’t work for everybody. It may just work for me. But if you’re interested in specifics about my system for setting healthy habits, keep reading.

WORKING OUT

As mentioned above, my goal is to workout 4 times per week. This isn’t hard to track. Did I get into the gym or hit the pavement, if so, then goal achieved.

I use a simple habit tracking app called Momentum to track my workout goal. If I worked out I just hit the box for that day and it turns from grey to green. The goal is to get 16 green boxes a month.

As you can see, some months are better than others, some weeks are better than others. Even if I don’t nail the goal every month, I’m showing up consistently and that’s meaningful.

BUDGETING

I’m no good at budgeting. I never have been. I’ve tried a bunch of apps, hacks and even using the good old envelope system, but nothing ever seemed to stick.

Then I broke down the problem. I have fixed costs — stuff that I have to pay every month — and variable costs — spending that can fluctuate month-to-month. Though there’s probably a lot of good advice on how to lower your fixed costs, I decided not to focus on those. I’m going to have to pay my rent, utilities and student loans every month, and aside from some pretty drastic moves those aren’t going to change much.

Instead I put all my energy into lowering my variable costs, what I call my personal burn rate. For me variable costs include food, drinks, coffee, ubers and fun stuff.

How it works

Using the app BUDGT, I track my spending and mark it under the relevant category.

I set a total amount of money I want to spend in a month and it will average it out into a daily budget. So, if you wanted to spend $3,000 in a month, that would be $100/day. Every time I spend money, I pull out my phone, record how much I spent and mark it to a correlated category. Then my total pie is reduced by that amount. It’s stupidly simple.

At the end of the day and the end of the month you can see how well you did at keeping your personal burn rate down.

Why BUDGT works

What I like about this app is 1) It’s dead simple, 2) it’s not automatic, 3) it gamifies my spending.

First of all, I love simple UX. There’s not much a more simpler way to easily grasp where you are on daily spending than looking at a pie chart.

When it’s blue, you’re good, when it’s yellow, you’re getting close to the limit.

Secondly, unlike a bunch of other apps, BUDGT is not automatically tracking your spending. You may see this as a bug, I see it as a feature. I am forced to pull out my phone every time I buy a coffee, dinner, drinks or uber and log that spending.

The simple act of manually inputting my spending has made me a more conscious consumer.

Third, I’m a little competitive. If you give me a goal, I will always try to beat it. This app gives me a very clear goal every day that I want to beat.

I’m always scheming to try to spend a few percent less each day.

The cool thing is that the dollars you don’t spend one day roll over. The amount averages out over the month, so if you go under for a number of days in a row, the size of your daily pie grows. My hack is to try to spend as little from Sunday — Wednesday so I can have a little more cash to spend on the weekend.

SPIRITUAL

Without a spiritual practice in the morning, the first thing I do is wake up and check my email. I’m in my bed. My eyes haven’t even adjusted. I’m squinting at my phone. All of the challenges of the day hit me immediately, so I start the day from posture of reacting to those challenges.

The last few months I’ve been going through a shared practice with my community called the Morning Office. The idea is that we are all going to start the day by going through the same spiritual practice, which is structured and informed by the Book of Common Prayer.

The Morning Office creates a structured space for connection, contrition, gratitude, meditation and intention-setting.

By starting the day with this practice, I step into the day centered and ready to proactively tackle the work day.

BUILD YOUR STACK

My objectives and my tactics may not work for you. If not, throw all of the specifics away, but hold onto the core principle:

Creating complementary habits will increase your chance to achieving positive personal growth.

If you’re wondering where to start, hit the gym 4 times a week. As exercise is a keystone habit, it will help you take on your other goals. Good luck. I’m looking forward to hearing how the system works for you and/or how you created your own system.