Last semester, I had a student who told me that he had been the kind of student in high school who just sort of skated through his classes, not taking anything too seriously, a typical C student. (By the way, I have permission from the student to talk about his experience.) He wanted to change that. He wanted to be a different person in the new environment of college. We talked about the habits of good students. I shared what I had read about the habits of successful students in articles like this. The first habit of the successful student is typically “Get Organized.” Put your assignments in a planner and check it every day to make sure you’re doing the work you need to do in order to be successful. This student put his assignments in a planner. And then hardly ever checked it. Despite his strong motivation to change, he soon fell back into his habits from high school. We talked about the situation a lot and I realized that simply telling someone the “right” things to do doesn’t work. If it did, we would all accomplish all of our goals. We wouldn’t set and break resolutions every New Year. And yet, I have so often given advice to students about good study skills and habits. But I have never helped students figure out how to actually develop these skills and habits.
So I started to do some research about habit formation. I soon found Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s an easy read packed with information about how to effectively develop or break habits. I think this can be helpful in my work with students but it has already been helpful to me in my own life.
Clear writes that the goals we set for ourselves are the results that you want to achieve while habits are about the systems we use to achieve those results. If we want better results, we need to change our systems, our habits, our processes, our behaviors. The rest of the book is about how to build habits that support the results that we want to achieve. He says there are three levels of change we can engage in: outcome change, process change, and identity change. “The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become (p. 41).” The idea behind this statement is that we shouldn’t focus on our goals but rather on being the type of person who engages in certain behaviors, habits, that are likely to achieve those goals. For example, instead of focusing on the goal of writing a novel, we should focus on becoming a writer which means we write every day. Instead of focusing on the goal of running the Boston Marathon, we should focus on becoming a runner which means we run every day. Interesting idea.
Clear then identifies the four parts of the habit loop: cue, craving, response, and reward (p. 47). The cue triggers the brain to initiate a behavior. The cue triggers a craving, not for the habit itself but for the change in our internal state it delivers. The response is the actual habit we perform which might be a thought or an action. The response then delivers the reward, the actual change in our internal state. The reward satisfies our craving. This sounds very simple but because so much of this loop is invisible and automatic, it is usually really challenging to change these habits. For example, we might have a habit of drinking a glass of wine while making dinner every night that we decide we want to change. The cue for this habit is that we take out the tools we need to make dinner. This triggers our craving of the relaxation we feel when we drink that glass of wine. Our response is almost irresistably automatic so we pour that glass of wine. And our reward is the satisfaction of that craving for relaxation.
He then goes on to give advice about how to create good habits and break bad habits.
How to Create a Good Habit
The 1st law (Cue)
Make it obvious.
The 2nd law (Craving)
Make it attractive.
The 3rd law (Response)
Make it easy.
The 4th law (Reward)
Make it satisfying.
We can invert these laws to learn how to break a bad habit.
How to Break a Bad Habit
Inversion of the 1st law (Cue)
Make it invisible.
Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving)
Make it unattractive.
Inversion of the 3rd law (Response)
Make it difficult.
Inversion of the 4th law (Reward)
Make it unsatisfying.
These simple ideas have already made a difference in my own habits and I’ve begun to talk to my students about how they can make desired changes in their habits. For example, one of the things I wanted to change about my behavior is that I wanted to write every day. I make this goal obvious by writing it in my bullet journal (I’ll write more about the bullet journal journey that my research into habit formation sent me on in a later blog post–it’s been a positive journey). Before I read Clear’s book, I made the goal of writing 1000 words at least 5 times a week. This was a really challenging goal for me and although I was managing to meet it for a few weeks, it was really hard. Then I read Clear’s book and I changed the goal. Instead of 1000 words at least 5 times a week, I now have the goal to write 250 words 5 times a week. This is a far easier goal and I exceed it most of the time. I’m using my bullet journal to make the goal both attractive and satisfying by using a visual habit tracker in my journal. The habit tracker is such a simple idea and yet it is so compelling to me. The featured image on this post is a very simple version of a habit tracker. (This one is a free template from Saturday Gift.) You write the habits you want to track on the left side of the grid and color in the boxes each day you complete the habit or put an X in the box if you don’t complete the habit. I can’t explain why it is so motivating. But it is. I want to color in those boxes!
Clear writes about starting habits with really basic, easy tasks. If you want to exercise when you get home from work, put a post-it note where you hang up your keys to put your work out clothes on. You don’t actually have to work out (at first). You just have to put your clothes on. And then give yourself a reward for putting your clothes on. The post-it note makes the habit obvious. The reward makes the habit attractive. The fact that you just have to put your clothes on makes the habit easy. And the reward is the reward. And it turns out, you will often actually work out after putting your work out clothes on. Clear points out that you don’t have to be perfect–you don’t have to work out every time you put your work out clothes on. In fact, you don’t have to put your work out clothes on every day. But if you put them on more days than you don’t, you’ve begun to create this habit. And if you don’t put them on more days than you do, Clear suggests that maybe this goal isn’t one you actually value. So maybe you don’t beat yourself up for not doing it.
I’ve talked with students about how they can use the habit loop and these 4 laws to achieve academic success. Put your books on your pillow so you have to move them to go to bed in order to make it obvious that you actually have books. Set a goal to look at your assignments in the learning management system for your classes–just look at them. Put your game controller in your friend’s room so that you have to go down the hall to retrieve it to play your video game. Set a reminder on your phone to tell yourself it’s time to go to bed. What works for one person will not work for everyone but there is something that will work for everyone. We just need to figure out what each person values and how to use that to help them to be more successful (whatever “successful” means for that person).
I have been talking to students for a long time about good study habits. But this is the first time I have really thought about not just telling students what good study habits are but helping them to actually develop those habits. I think it’s already making a difference and I look forward to learning more about it.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.