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The Tiling Method: Leveling Up Habit Stacking

The tiling method: leveling up habit stacking
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You’ve likely heard of habit stacking. It’s a popular method to create associations between small activities.

For instance, if you want to get in the habit of brushing your teeth twice a day, but struggle to brush more than once at bedtime, try brushing your teeth as part of your morning shower. You’re already showering every morning.

In fact, we can be more specific to guarantee success: try brushing your teeth right after you shampoo your hair. Now, instead of just waiting 1-2 minutes for the soap to do its magic, you can make use of that wait time. You “stack” the habit of brushing your teeth into a previously empty slot.

Habit stacking abounds everywhere. It’s simply a matter of looking at your routine for missed opportunities. For example, my “podcast” habit came about mostly from deciding, if ever I’m doing something that doesn’t require unbroken concentration — like eating lunch or driving — I can put my podcast on. I’ve learned to stack this habit in a way that lets me get through about 1-2 hours of my podcast feed every day, without having to also add 1-2 hours.

Because the Multihabit system is based on measuring time on well-defined habits, it creates a special way to level up habit stacking. I call this the tiling method, and to explain it, let’s consider an example.

Recently I decided I wanted to make progress on one aspect of piano study I had put off — listening to recordings of the pieces I’m learning, as well as working through the theory and harmony texts.

I already had a “reading” habit. I was showing up daily to put in some time on the book I have on the go, as well as a magazine. I also already had 18 well-defined habits! So, at this point, it did not make sense to add a new habit to the mix.

Instead, I decided to treat this aspect of study as reading. When I thought about what reading means to me, over time it has become more the mindset and discipline of intently focusing on taking in material. Reading lines of text on a page is just one aspect.

Many times, for example, while reading a lesson in a Highbrow course, I would watch a reference video, but found I watched it in the same way I would if it were a natural extension of the reading process. I’ve come to see reading more as “inputting”. Listening to music attentively, with the score in front of me, and trying to study it, is a discipline that comes about only because I’m invoking my “reading” focus-mode.

Here’s where habit stacking comes into it.

My reading habit was a wide-open field of opportunity. As I solved the problem of where to fit my piano study, I realized I could “stack” these activities within this habit.

Now this is also where things will diverge a bit from habit stacking. Fitting in activities that take single focus, to something that also takes single focus, must be done with care.

This takes us to the reason I call this method “tiling”, rather than an instance of habit stacking.

Imagine your activity like a small tile on a tiled wall. In my case, my reading habit is like a big wall with mostly “reading book” and “reading magazine article” tiles. If I’m going to fit in time for “listening” and “study”, this means I have to approach the problem from two ends:

  1. I have to consider how to shrink “reading book” and “reading magazine article”
  2. I have to consider how small to keep “listening” and “study”

The tiling method can create fresh perspective on how and why you do the things you do in a given habit. For example, I used to spend a long time reading my magazine every day. My “tiling” for this initially was one complete article. If the article happens to be a Scientific American physics article, that could take an hour or more!

When fitting in “listening” and “study” I reconfigured all the tiles on the wall of my reading habit. Instead of a whole article, I learned it’s okay to take a few days to finish a long article. Likewise with listening, instead of working through a whole symphony, I could scale it back to a movement and get through a symphony in a few days. For study, I need only work on a section, not necessarily a whole chapter.

The main idea of tiling is it lets you feel progress because you haven’t stalled. Like brushing your teeth in the shower, even if you fit in a small regular activity related to a habit you’re already doing, you will relieve lots of anxiety by feeling progress.

Another example is the detailed build steps of the Multihabit app. I usually work a little on this every day, as a part of my writing habit. I do a very very small amount, but because I put in that time every day as part of a cornerstone habit, I see the process moving forward, and am confident that eventually — even if slowly — the app will be done and launched.

Stay tuned for next Tuesday, when we’ll explore yet more ideas built around the Multihabit system.