Have you ever tried to start a new exercise routine, only to quit a week or two into it? Or had the best of intentions to give students more frequent and specific feedback, but never got it jumpstarted? Believe it or not – even the best of intentions and motivation only get you so far … and in many cases, it’s not very far.
The key to successful habit formation is NOT you. Yes – you read that right! Prepare to be SHOCKED to learn what you are missing and how EASY it can be to become a pro at starting and breaking habits. Your life is about to get really good, really fast.
For better or for worse, we are creatures of habits. In fact, some research indicates 40% of our everyday behaviors are habits (Neal, Wood, & Quinn, 2006). How happy or unhappy you are is a result of your habits. How fit or unfit you are is also a result of your habits. How effective or ineffective you are as a leader (or teacher) is, indeed, highly related to your habits. With so much at stake, this month’s newsletter is dedicated to helping you understand the science of habits to help you and your students maximize your daily efforts.
What is a habit?
Habits are behaviors you do automatically, usually in response to a cue (Judah et al., 2013). When a student feels bored (cue), they grab their phone and engage in social media or entertainment (behavioral). When there is a response (reward) the behavior gets reinforced. With enough frequency, a habit is formed.
For some, habits are formed as you pursue a goal and a behavior becomes automatized through repetition (Carden & Wood, 2018). Someone who is trying to reach a goal of losing 10 pounds might adopt a habit of exercise or healthy eating (or both).
The discouraging reality of starting new, positive habits is that most of our efforts fade within a few weeks or months (Bolier et al., 2013). If you’re unlikely to stick to the good ones, and the hard ones are so hard to break, what’s the point? Why invest so much energy into creating new habits? Doesn’t it all sound like creating a boring life void of any novelty and excitement anyway?
Why Habits are Really Important
Automating positive behaviors (like exercising, healthy eating, meditating, etc.) has tremendous benefits in your school, health, and life endeavors. Let’s focus in on just three of these benefits.
- Efficiency–Having anything automated is desirable because it leaves one (or many) less thing to focus on. A coffee machine that automatically brews you a cup of joe every morning at 6am, an alarm that reminds you it is time to take your child to soccer practice, even the simple habit of flossing every day immediately before brushing your teeth – all these habits free up mental space for you to focus on other important things.
You do not need to waste time thinking, deciding, or planning anything – it’s a habit. Anytime you can train your brain to be on “autopilot” through positive habit formation, you are decreasing the likelihood of cognitive load – basically, an overwhelmed working memory trying to manage too many tasks at once (Paas & Ayres, 2014).
- Repeat the Good– I have yet to meet someone who is addicted to broccoli, mindfulness, or drinking water. However, there are plenty of people who do these things routinely. The best way to keep doing the good things in life over and over again is to create a habit out of them. How do you do that? Stay tuned – we’re getting there.
- Compound the Benefits – Doing the same thing, over and over again, and doing it well brings more sustained benefits into your life. Going for one, single 20-minute power walk after school will leave you feeling good about yourself and help you burn a few calories. That’s, of course, a good thing. But make the powerwalk into a daily habit and now you are using an environmental action to impact your genes. Yes, exercising your body and mind begin the trigger of epigenetic changes that are not just lasting, but in some cases, inheritable (Fernandes, Arida, & Gomez-Pinilla, 2017).
The right habits can protect you from numerous forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s (Thomas, Kenfield, & Jimenez, 2016; Booth, Roberts, & Laye, 2012; Brown, Belinda M. et al., 2017).You’ll also have better daily energy, likely adopt healthier eating patterns, produce more new brain cells, and many other health benefits (Gomez-Pinilla & Hillman, 2013).In short, while poor habits can make your life miserable, making your positive choices into an automated habit compounds the benefits that may increase your “healthspan” (vs. lifespan).
The Science of Habits
How exactly does the brain form a habit? How does it know what to do, and when? And how can we use this knowledge to develop better habits in our classrooms for better efficiency, more repetition of good choices, and compounding those benefits?
There is a small area of the basal ganglia called the stratium that plays a significant role in a behavior transitioning from a deliberate goal-oriented choice to an automated habit. Let’s take emptying the dishwasher as an example. When you first get a new dishwasher, you make a deliberate choice as to what order you will empty the dishes – top rack first, then bottom rack, and finish with the silverware. The neurons in your stratium have stable activity as you learn this new behavior.
Through repetition, however, it becomes a habit and you empty the dishwasher in the same order every time without thought. Your brain activity looks different then. Certain neurons in your stratium fire at rapid speeds at both the beginning and the end of a habit “chunk”. It senses you are flipping a switch on a sequence called: empty the dishwasher. Certain stratium neurons get overly excited (literally) as you initiate a habit sequence. Those neurons then essentially go quiet until the peak happens again at the end of the habit sequence, marking the completion of the habit (Martiros, Burgess, & Graybiel, 2018).
Why is this significant?
For starters, starting a new habit can be as easy as squeezing it into a pre-existing habit “chunk”. We’ll show you exactly how to do that in a moment. Also, it reminds us of the critical role a CUEplays in developing a habit. These neurons need to sense when you’re initiating a habit so they can jump into action. A cue can be an alarm, screen saver image, post-it note, or any physical object that cues you to engage in your habit. Want to do some light stretching every morning before work? Put your yoga mat in a place at night where you will nearly trip over it first thing in the morning.
The CUE gets you started, but how do you ensure you keep at it? That requires dopamine – the REWARD neurotransmitter. The key to new habit formation is for the reward to be SO desirable that you’ll be begging to do the behavior that will get you that reward. For some, the satisfaction of an empty dishwasher is enough to get them running to the dishwasher the moment the wash cycle ends. The dopamine released at the sight of an empty dishwasher is enough to cue you into action.
What if you get no satisfaction from an empty dishwasher? Well, that might explain the stack of dirty dishes in your sink! For you, a different, more desirable reward is needed to keep you out of the dog house. Maybe you decide you get to watch an episode of your favorite show AFTER the dishwasher is empty.
The formula to successful habit formation is simple: Cue – habit – reward.
The key is to neurologically connect the cue to the reward. The brain craves the reward, and will thus be driven back to the behavior that gave the reward.
And the best way to do that is NOT through you setting more goals, being “more motivated,” etc. To be exceptional at positive habit formation you need SYSTEMS. Habit expert, James Clear says: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” (Clear, 2018, pg. 27).
Below are powerful habit-forming actions to help your new (and better) good behavior stick like super glue. Please do not read this and say, “That makes sense.” Please, use this to grow (you know, that “growth mindset” idea?) with one simple, tiny change in your workplace or personal life.
There are many tools you can put in place to boost your habit-forming skills. Choose from these four simple ones you can start using today to help your students (and you) be better learners and successful adults.
Many people never make it off the starting line toward their goal because the goal seems too big and lofty to achieve. Successful people break down their goals into micro steps and focus on accomplishing the one, tiny next step.
Think it is too ambitious for your students to read for 30 minutes a day? Start with a 1-minute a day challenge, and build from there. Make it so easy they are almost guaranteed success. Then the brain’s natural reward system will be on your side motivating them to take the next small step.
Build in rewards
With all habits (good and bad), it is the reward you are after, not the actual behavior. The person who exercises daily is after the reward of weight loss, more muscle, or overall positive well-being. Similarly, the person who smokes cigarettes daily is after the relaxing effect the cigarette offers – it’s not the cigarette itself, it is the reward it brings.
The habit is simply the vehicle that gets you to your desired destination – the reward. So, to break a bad habit, build in painful rewards that you will desperately want to avoid (Donate $20 to a cause you vehemently oppose every time you smoke a cigarette). To start a new habit, build in highly desirable rewards (binge watch favorite Netflix show).
For your students, you can start building in rewards for completing their homework before they even leave your classroom. Here is one way it could work: Ten minutes before the end of class, the teacher announces it is time to “Start your engine”. Students get out paper, write their name and the assignment at the top of the paper. Then they write out their plan to get it done: an estimate of how long it will take, and what time they will start. Then they write down a contact for help in case they need it (a Plan B). Finally, they write a one-sentence affirmation and a strong reason why finishing the homework is important: makes parents happy, I can show what I’m made of, I can impress someone who did not believe in me, I can get closer to college, etc. That final step draws attention to the reward built into the habit of daily homework completion.
Automate the habit
Want students to have a better attitude toward school and learning? Automate a system to help them regulate their attitude. Here is one you could do this week: Work with the class to develop a short (3-5 sentence) positive mission statement for the class. As soon as the bell rings (that is the cue), students recite the class mission statement: “Today is a great day for learning. I am a scholar that pays attention, works hard, and supports my classmates. I can choose to have a great day, and I choose to have a great day today!”Positive self-talk is a powerful life habit that improves performance, motivation, and attention (Geurts, 2018; Hatzigeorgiadis & Galanis, 2017).
Automated habits can also help your students to accomplish important daily tasks. For example, the teacher plays, “I Like to Move it, Move it”, and the 2ndgraders automatically jump into action. They collect their homework, put it in the correct basket, put the baskets on the shelf, and hi-five their teammates before the song ends. They’ve learned the habit and execute several tasks automatically with enthusiasm and ease.
You’d be surprised how many times a day you already use habit-stacking with incredible ease and success. When you first interact with your phone in the morning, you likely have a “routine” or habit you follow: check email, news, social media account, etc. When do you habitually put on your seat belt? Is it after you close the door or after you turn the car on? Habit stacking is about bundling 2 or more habits together so the new habit simply becomes an extension of an already existing habit.
To help your students adopt the habit of proofreading their writing, combine it with an existing series of checks they can run through on their own – the 3 Safety Checks before submitting your writing assignment: 1. Did I put my name on the paper, 2. Did I clearly answer the question?, 3. Did I proofread my writing?
Helping your students (as well as you) build habits is a priceless lifetime skill. It has the capacity to change the course of one’s life. Be the one person to help yourself (or another) to grow quickly as a person, student, or educator with habit routines that work.
Mirror-Mirror (Just for YOU)
These same principles can support you in developing great habits.
Micro-habits: Want to begin a new workout routine? Start with walking/running/stretching for 2 minutes every day for a week. Then build up from there.
Automate the habit: Want to limit your social media consumption? Have a friend or loved one set up a parental control system on your phone to shut down your social media apps after x minutes.
Build in rewards: Want to stop complaining about students in the teacher’s lounge? Put a bowl of mints (or another treat you’ll enjoy) near the door. Every time you leave the teacher’s lounge without complaining, treat yourself to a mint.
Habit stacking: Want to make a habit of more positive phone calls/emails to parents? You can automate that with a calendar reminder OR put a post-it note on your remote control. Every evening when you settle down to watch your favorite show you’ll be reminded that you’ve committed to one email/phone call before turning on the tube.
Still trying to finish that book on better financial management, relationships, or teaching? Put it on your pillow after making your bed each morning. It will be there, smiling at you, when you head to bed. You must move it before falling asleep, so you’ll pick it up. Combine this with a micro habit of reading just 2 pages a day, and you’ll be on your way to building a new habit.