by Tim Tibbitts
I had the opportunity this summer to spend a few weeks attending workshops devoted to nutrition, exercise, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and one idea that kept coming up was the power of habit. When we are eager to make a significant change in our lives, whether it be getting healthier, making the varsity team, or doing better in school, it is very tempting to look for the grand gesture, the ONE BIG THING that’s going to make all the difference. For better or worse, that’s not usually how real change happens. The bold move is exciting to imagine, but the daily grind is where the magic happens.
So much of what we do on a daily is based on habit. Some habits, like brushing our teeth each morning, we are aware of. Others, like biting our nails or interrupting our friends and classmates in conversations, we may be less aware of. Either way, a high percentage of our actions in a given day (week, month) are habits. Armed with that knowledge, we can use habits to our benefit, putting the power of habit to work for us in making a change or achieving a goal.
To see the power of habit in action, consider your morning routine: If you had to think consciously about and actively decide each and every morning to do all of the things that are part of your morning routine—waking up with the alarm, getting out of bed, using the bathroom, brushing your teeth, showering, eating breakfast, and leaving for school by a certain time—that would be a lot to remember to do. Having to remember the list and mobilize yourself to do it all could take a lot of energy. But because you’re in the habit, you just do it, thus freeing up mental time and energy for other, more demanding tasks.
Much has been written about how to form habits, and I won’t try to summarize that all here. (If you are interested in an excellent discussion of how habits get formed and reinforced—including some insights on how to break a bad habit—I recommend Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, especially the first ninety-three pages, which address the dynamics of personal habits.) My purpose here is to help students to become intentional about putting the power of habit to work in your academic efforts.
Let’s consider some examples:
There are those students who always seems to know when the next test is, to have made time to see the teacher in advance to clarify some confusion, and to have planned ample time for study; others are surprised to learn there’s a big test tomorrow and run out of time to study because there’s a big game or a long play practice tonight. Both of these approaches are habits.
How about the kid who’s always finished a rough draft of a paper three days before it’s due so she can run some questions by her teacher, and revised by two days before so that all she has to do the night before is to print and proofread with fresh eyes. Helpful habits! On the other hand is the miserable way I wrote papers all through high school and college: late at night the night before the paper was due, too often in an “all-nighter” and occasionally finding myself begging the teacher for an extension. Bad habits to be sure!
I’m sure you’ve got some goals for the new school year. As school begins, ask yourself: What are the two or three habits that, if you could form them solidly and practice them regularly, would be most helpful to you in achieving those goals? Examples might include “Starting homework no later than 4 PM on school days” or “Using my planner to keep track of daily assignments and longer term assignments” or “Review (and tidy!) my notes from class before starting tonight’s reading assignment.” I’d be delighted to hear what works for you.
Best wishes for a great school year. If you run into any trouble, don’t forget The Whole Kid is here to help!
The Whole Kid founder Tim Tibbitts has been helping kids make a successful transition to high school and college for more than two decades. Tim can be reached with comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.