Unfortunately, despite the alluring nature of this title which conjures images of black leather and gritty steel, this article is less about BDSM and more about positive habit formation, through a method called chaining.  It’ll be short and sweet.  Let’s get to it.

It’s a new year; desiring to make a change is on the minds of most, and let’s face it, you’re on a therapist’s blog page so it’s likely healthy changes are on your mind.  But it’s so fucking hard to change.  You got that right.  Making change may not be easy, but it can be more simple than perhaps we’ve been led to believe.

I’ve written about executive dysfunction before, and difficult attention span stuff that makes it hard to keep on track.  All well and good, and today I’m diving into a nitty-gritty kind of real-life adaptation that can allow us to incorporate change and positive habits into our lives with just a tad less elbow grease.  

Chaining is a way of describing learning and task formation, and though I first heard it described to me in an intro psych course waaay back in “Conditioning & Learning” (thanks, Rutgers) you and I have been using it all our lives to learn new behaviors, habits, and ways of being that make sense. 

In psychology, this term is used to describe a way of learning complex tasks by breaking them into smaller parts which become “chained together.” 

In colloquial terms which will be more what I’m using here, it refers to adding tasks to other tasks we already do in order to reinforce that we do them until they become unconscious or habitual.  

What this looks like: 

Doctor says you have to take a new medication.  Doctor says, “Don’t forget to take this every day.”  You’re all, Doc, I got this, and then you keep flubbing it.  Why not chain it to something you are already doing daily?  Like, 

  • Upon waking or when you go to sleep so the bottle is on your nightstand
  • When you brush your teeth in the am and leave the bottle by the sink
  • When you drive to work so the bottle is in your cupholder
  • At lunch time so it’s by your fridge or in your lunchbox

In my thirties I am discovering all the wonder of gum disease.  “You should floss more,” my dentist had said, and “ha!” I shouted in my teens and twenties, “I have never had a cavity!  I am invincible!” or, more demurely stated, “I already floss,” while bleeding freely with the slightest prick from the dentist’s tools, betraying my lies.  Now, I can’t continue with this game anymore, and actually began seriously flossing about two years ago.  Fortunately, it was easy: I chained it to the behavior I already had, which was brushing my teeth at night.  So now I can’t “forget” to floss, and although I can’t avoid it I would really prefer not to have more gum surgery, so I have the reminder right there, there’s floss and shit by my toothbrush and I don’t miss.

Maybe we need to do more stretching.  Maybe we saw it in a cute social media ad or maybe it’s been told to us by physical therapists for years (oops, my hamstrings do remind me but I tried to ignore the yelling).  But it’s so hard, I whine, when I really mean it’s uncomfy, and I avoid the uncomfy.  Well, now I can remind myself because I can chain it to something I’m going to do anyways, like get up in between sessions or work projects or even fucking Deep Rock missions.  So I can get up and stretch if I am in between sets, or if I have to take a bio break or whatever.  And then it becomes part of the day.  

A lot of folks want to begin a yoga or meditation routine but find it hard to carve out the time or to remember to do it.  If you aren’t as calendar-centric as me, chaining is a great way to accomplish this, by adding it on in small ways to things you might already do: you can take a nice beat in the first five minutes of lunch for example, or in the ten minutes before drifting off to sleep.  

Adding on activities to other activities is a great way to continue adding to wellness routines that you want to create for yourself.  The small changes you want to make can become comfy with more practice, making way to continue the routines, or add on or lengthen healthy additions to your life.  Flossing with brushing can become an additional skincare routine, and then taking a daily multivitamin, and then giving yourself a comfy face massage, or whatever else.  Or it can stay flossing and then your gums can come kick my gums’ shiny blushy little asses.  Whatever the case, it’s progress.  

More resources:

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by BJ Fogg

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear