The Creative Compass Challenge:

Habit Stacking | Step into your creative identity

Habit Stacking

Conscious decision? That work you did yesterday?

It’s all about setting the direction. Providing you with longer-term vision. Giving you a filter for what matters most, and which way to orient and point yourself.

The key to arriving at that destination is taking regular, repeated… habitual action

Again, no big revelation here.

If you want to do the thing, you have to…uh, you know. Do the thing.

However, the key to long term progress on your work is not simply telling yourself, “This is a priority,” and trying to force yourself to get to work.

It’s making a series of small, highly specific —conscious— decisions about when, where, and how you’ll do the work…ahead of time.

Before you sit down to work.

When you “pre-decide” all those elements of your creative work session, you transform the path to success from a rocky ankle-turner into a Slip-n-Slide.

You build your creative habit.

The magic of habits isn’t just that you finish projects relatively painlessly, it’s that, in the words of one of our Creative Focus Workshop alums, you get to declare, “I am a finisher.”

While chatting during Thursday’s Open Studio event, I described myself as a “finisher,” because over time I have closed open loops on many partially done quilt projects. I’m not sure at what point the scales tipped from “procrastinator” over to “finisher,” but finisher I am.

— Maggie Winnall, Quilt Creatrix

You don’t do the action, YOU ARE THE THING

That is why habits matter. They represent identity change.

You don’t go to a spin class, you’re an exerciser.

You’re not writing 500 words. You’re a writer.

(And yes, you’re not smoking a cig. You’re a smoker. It cuts both ways.)

Identity change is the peak outcome of this process of setting creative goals and finishing projects. At some point, you tip over from “trying” to a new level: You are the Person Who Does the Thing.

Daily affirmations are NOT how identity change happens. You can’t wish or declare your way there.

The good news is, you can sneak up on it by just lowering the bar waaaaay low, and simply doing a tiny thing over and over.

Just focus on today, and what will make today a little tiny bit better than yesterday.

How to use habit stacking to build your creative habit

As James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits:

“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits.”

In other words: You get what you repeat

This diagram (also courtesy of James Clear) could not be a more perfect depiction of what happens to people when they commit to the tools found in the Creative Compass Challenge (and Creative Focus Workshop).

Check out that sharp upward spike:

Habit stacking helps you make TINY, super-doable conscious decisions regularly.

Let’s make some TINY, super-doable conscious decisions. Clarity on the what, the how, and the when, is key to success.

“Many people think they lack motivation when really what they lack is clarity.”  —James Clear

Step 1 for building a creative habit is: Which habit? (Start with just one)

When you’re talking about adopting the habit of focus on your creative project, for the most part, this is simple. Either pick one action you need to do repeatedly to move your project forward (like “writing session for 30 minutes”), or set a highly reasonable timeframe container for your project, to work on whatever your next steps are (30 minutes is a good place to start).

Step 2: Create a habit trigger: When and where?

A habit trigger is something that will indicate to your non-conscious brain that it’s time to start your habit.

The easiest way to create a powerful habit trigger is to link it to something else you do every single day.

That’s called “habit stacking.”

Identify something ultra simple (mundane!) that you do daily. Something you take for granted. Something so easy or so ingrained that you can’t not do it daily. Ideally this will be something at the end of an existing habit stack, like your morning routine. What’s the last thing you do in the morning every single day, before your day becomes variable?

  • Pour a cup of coffee in the kitchen
  • Sit at my desk after arriving at work
  • Load the breakfast dishes

Now, “stack” your new habit onto this current daily habit. Schedule your new habit right after that ingrained one.

Picture exactly what you’ll do next. Where will you set down your coffee cup? What drawer will you open? Which tool will you pick up.

Be super-specific.

Now, go set up that next action.

  • Clear space for your coffee at your worktable and set a coaster in place.
  • Put your journal in the top drawer of your desk with your favorite pen clipped to it.
  • Set your laptop on your desk the night before, with everything closed except your project.

This “pre-deciding” avoids the “I’ll try” part of building a new habit.

You’re attaching a new habit to an existing one you never miss doing. As Yoda says, “Do or do not — there is no try.” Habit stacking helps you by removing the barrier of decision making.

Habit stacking helps you avoid "trying" by removing the barrier of decision making.

Step 3: Codify your new habit stack

Write your habit trigger as a when-then statement in this format:

  • After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT] at [time] in [location].

Add a reminder to your phone calendar with a notification, or stick a post-it note on whatever you’ll be habit stacking on, and get ready to make it so tomorrow!

Life is going to screw with your habit intentions

I know you’ve tried some of this stuff before. Here’s what’s going to be different this time:

You’re going to forgive yourself when you miss a day, and you’ll keep going.

If you identify as a writer and you miss a day, it’s no big deal. You’re already (and will still remain) that person who writes. You can jump right back into your routine.

But if you’re “trying” to write, then miss a day, when you don’t identify as a writer? Not doing it may result in the end of a habit before it can stick.

That’s why it’s important to trust that you’re in a transition period to a new identity, and that it’s OK if things happen to your routine.

Water under the bridge, keep rolling.

You’re still on track.

Your Homework:

Coaching and Q&A

Listen to the coaching session:

Lesson plan | Jump to: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5

Want to listen to the lessons and coaching on the go?

Subscribe to the Creative Compass Challenge podcast feed here.

stop procrastinating and start finishing
You’re making amazing progress with this challenge, but I know that even so, it can feel like creating is a magical gift that simply shows up when it feels like it (and mostly doesn't feel like it)…
…but that's just not true.

The fact is:

✅  There are FOUR DISTINCT PHASES of the creative process, and you're probably skipping at least oneMaybe two.

✅ Procrastination, perfectionism, and impostor syndrome hit at specific points in your process. Until you know when the usually show up, and why, you can't dodge them.

✅  Trying to force yourself to do the work is probably making things worse, not better.

Join the Creative Engine Masterclass to address these mistakes and take your Creative Compass Challenge insights to the next level.

It's been a game-changer for hundreds of participants, and it's totally free.