In his autobiography, No Limits, swimmer Michael Phelps describes entering the 400-meter individual medley final at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing1:
After we walked out to behind the blocks, I did what I always do there. I stretched my legs on the blocks, two different stretches, one a straight-leg stretch, the other with a bent knee, left leg first. I took the right headphone out. Once they called my name, I took the left headphone out, the parka off.
Continuing his pre-race routine, he made sure that the block was dry before stepping onto it. Once up there, he did his usual double arm swing, slapping his back. Then we waited for the beep, dove into the water, and started swimming.
4:03.84 later, Phelps had won the race and broken his own world record by nearly two seconds. Over the course of the Beijing Olympic Games, he went on to win a total of eight gold medals — the most first place finishes at any single Olympic Games in history.
Michael Phelps retired as the most decorated Olympian of all time2 with 28 medals, and also holds the record for Olympic gold medals with a total of 23.
The Power of Habit Stacking
Throughout his remarkable career, Phelps relied heavily on specific routines to consistently perform at his very best. His pre-race routine was carefully designed to help him be calm and focused before the race. And if you look into it closely, you’ll see that it’s basically a series of if-then plans following each other:
→ If I stand behind the blocks – Then I will stretch my left leg
→ If I’ve stretched my left leg – Then I will stretch my right leg
→ If I’ve stretched my right leg – Then I will take my right headphone out
→ If they call my name – Then I will take the left headphone out and the parka off
→ If I’ve removed my headphones and parka – Then I will make sure the block is dry
… And so on, until the moment Phelps hit the water. This strategy of grouping a sequence of behaviors together into a routine is called habit stacking.
If-Then, If-Then, If-Then…
Habit stacking is a simple and effective strategy you can use anytime you want to establish several small behaviors. To use it, all you have to do is follow this formula:
After [Habit 1], I will [Habit 2] → After [Habit 2], I will [Habit 3], etc.
The beauty of habit stacking is that it turns individual tasks into a single action, where each habit acts as a cue for the next. And you don’t have to be a professional athlete to benefit from this approach. To give you a more relatable example, here’s the habit stack for my morning routine:
10-minute meditation → 10 minutes of reading → Light workout → Basic stretching → Two hours of focused writing
If I just sit down on my meditation pillow, that will initiate the rest of the morning routine. And once I’ve done my morning routine, the rest of the day tends to be productive.
How about you? What small behaviors could you turn into a habit stack? What routine could you put in place to achieve your goals?