How to achieve everything you ever wanted (or at least teach your students how)

Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash

I have a bad habit of being late. I don’t do it on purpose, but it seems no matter how much I vow to never be late again!… I end up being late. For years, people have told me to not be late, but it makes no difference.

Because being late is a habit, and good intentions do not work on habits. 

One way to teach good behaviour…

We do the same thing with students. A young man comes in unprepared, and we lecture him about how he needs to come to class prepared. Don’t you know this by eighth grade!? It’s been 4 months! Don’t do it again! Et cetera.

But he is never prepared. Because when you are used to doing something a certain way, that’s how you think about it. 

When I am getting ready to go out, I don’t budget my time properly. It’s just not something I think about.

When this student is getting ready for class, he’s not thinking about what supplies he might need. It’s not something he thinks about.

Within both these behaviours, and pretty much every other behaviour humans do, there is a habit loop acting. Every action you take, every move you make, a habit loop is happening.

If you want to change the behaviour, you have to change the habit.

A better way to teach behaviour

The undesirable habit loop

Bell rings -> Walk to class -> On time for class -> Repeat

The desirable habit loop

Bell rings -> Think about what you need for class -> On time and prepared

Life is a series of habits

Habit loops are related to everything – our beliefs, skills, actions, anxiety, self-talk, personality, relationships, addiction, health, wealth.

If we can control our habits, we can do anything.

What is the habit loop?

Here’s how a habit works: you get a cue, which triggers a certain routine, which leads to a reward. Once you receive the cue, the rest happens automatically. This is why we can do so many things on autopilot, from brushing our teeth to driving – we are locked into our routine, like a hamster trapped on a spinning wheel.

For example, while working, you might feel bored, which triggers you to check social media, which gives you a novel stimulus (something mildly interesting to look at), so you feel less bored. 

How do you change a bad habit to a good habit?

Charles Duhigg, author of the excellent book, The Power of Habit, says the Golden Rule of habit change is this: change the routine, keep the cue and the reward the same.

So when you feel bored, stand up and stretch, or take a walk for a minute. You should get the same reward of feeling less bored, without falling into the black hole of social media.

How long do habits take?

People like to say it takes 30 days to form a habit; that is, how long it takes to make a behaviour automatic. Neuroscience research shows the length of time is more like 90 days.

So give yourself and your students some grace in the process.

We need to teach habits

If this is the first time you’re learning about habit loops, I hope it triggers you to ask yourself this: if habit loops have such control over our lives, why aren’t we teaching this in school?

Good question. We teach SMART goals, but they’re just one aspect of changing behaviour, achieving dreams, and having the life you want.

Aside from telling students to be better and make a change, we need to teach them how to do that. That means sitting down, having them map out what’s going on, and figuring out what can change. This is important, life-long work.

Here’s an example of something students can change, and something anyone who’s ever organized a meeting might want to look at.

Habit 1: Shutting down when things get tough

Doesn’t understand -> Acting out, shutting down -> Avoids working through confusion

Cue: A student doesn’t “get” something.

Routine: They act out, shut down, or do something else destructive and/or disruptive.

Reward: They don’t have to confront their confusion (which is really hard!), and they avoid feelings of stupidity, inadequacy, or embarrassment.

How we can help: Teach the student to notice their cue. They need to notice what confusion feels like, and where their thoughts go to. Then, decide on another course of action: raising their hand, taking five deep breaths, or signalling to the teacher in some way. Pair it with a positive affirmation, like, “It’s normal to feel this way when learning something new. I’m going to try anyways.”

Habits are just routines that get triggered that lead to rewards. They are a series of neural connections in the brain. To change a habit is merely to rewire.

Habit 2: What happens when you enter a room

Cue: Students enter the classroom, which brings to mind past feelings and experiences in this room, and in environments that look like this room. (What does this remind me of?) (What a space reminds you of is important to consider when setting up anywhere people interact.)

Routine: Students act out behaviours, either desirable (positive) or undesirable (negative).

Reward: Students satisfy their needs for safety and belonging.

As soon as behaviours become habit, the routine repeats every time the students enter the room.

How we can help: If you want students to take out their books and get to work as soon as they come in, you need to reinforce this routine every day. This will take time and persistence.

If, instead, you don’t teach students how to behave when entering the room, they will figure out acceptable behaviour for themselves to fulfill their cravings for safety and belonging. So that might be taking out their books and quietly studying, but it will probably be loudly talking across the room to their friends.

And once a habit is established, it is a lot harder to break.

This is why beginnings are very important.

Stop living from your past

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

— Will Durant

Consider how many things in your life are not choices, but habits. Most actions you take are habits. The same goes for students. We are all acting from our past behaviour. How they act today is a repeat of how they acted yesterday, last week, and last year.

But if you know how to thoughtfully change your behaviour, to do more of what you want, and less of what you don’t want…well, you’d be able to achieve anything you wanted.

Control your habits, control your destiny.