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Using the Science of Habits to Improve Performance in School: Part II

Written by Mark Skoskiewicz | Fri, Dec 29, 2017 @ 02:30 PM

In a previous article on the power of habits,  we discussed how habits are a tool our brains use to be more efficient. Instead of consciously analyzing every situation, thinking about various courses of action, and then deciding what to do, we use habits to automatically do this or that to save time. In theory, this allows us to decide to use our brain power to focus on things that really matter and really do require conscious deliberation. This is sometimes a good and sometimes a bad thing. It’s good when the habit is brushing our teeth each morning and night, or looking both ways before we cross the street. It’s bad when we grab a few cookies without even thinking about it when we are bored, or react negatively to constructive feedback.

Consider this quote by the philosopher William James –

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits - practical, emotional, and intellectual - systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

What should be clear, then, is that habits are powerful. They often end up determining how we behave in a wide variety of areas, and play a large part in our personality and success in school, work, and life.

In our last article, we also covered how habits work (i.e., the cue, craving, routine, reward sequence) and how to change them (identify the cue, then change the routine…) and briefly discussed the importance of keystone habits.

In this article, we’ll do two things. First, we’ll go into more detail on the importance of keystone habits and second, we’ll discuss how students can harness the power of habits to earn better grades, get higher test scores, and generally perform better in school.

The Importance of Keystone Habits

“Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and become more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.” 

Keystone habits are habits that seem to have spillover effects. For whatever reason, they seem to be the type of habits that once formed, make it easier to form other positive habits. Duhigg and others hypothesize that a keystone habit, even when it may be a small action or activity, tends to influence how you conceptualize yourself. A keystone habit reflects the type of person you are choosing to be.

Perhaps the most common keystone habit I’ve read about seems to be exercising regularly, as referenced in the above quote.  So, the idea is that once you start exercising, you are more likely to eat well, because you are becoming the type of person who is healthy. From there, you can envision that it obviously becomes easier to stop smoking or drinking, because those aren’t activities that a healthy person engages in. But it’s probably also a little easier to build a habit around reading more books or meditating, because once you begin to view yourself as physically healthy, introducing habits to improve mental health as well seems complementary. Robert Sun wrote an interesting article for the Huffington Post, suggesting that developing proficiency in math through deliberate, focused practice could be a keystone habit for students that spills over into all other subjects. We’ll return specifically to habits for students later in this article.

An important driver behind the importance of keystone habits is the notion that small, incremental change can lead to large change and improvement over time. Again, from the book by Duhigg –

Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. “

So, you might have a long-term goal to lose 100 pounds or improve your grade in a class from a D to an A or come back from a 20 point deficit at halftime to win a basketball game.  None of those impressive, “large” victories is possible without a collection of small victories. Building a habit of doing one minute of running in place each morning, boxing out on defense on every play, or completing every single homework assignment are all small steps which will not by themselves accomplish the larger goal, but which are probably necessary steps along the right path.

How students can leverage habits to improve academic performance

Harnessing the power of habits is a powerful strategy for success in school. Students can think about three different categories of habits that could lead to improved performance:

  1. Mental habits that influence how you think about success in school and positively or negatively influence your attitude
  2. Habits that influence how you spend time or behave before, during, and after class
  3. Habits that influence how you perform when taking tests

Mental habits that influence how you think about success in school

We write a lot on this blog about the importance of a growth mindset, which says that your intellect is more like a muscle you build with effort, not a trait you inherit at birth. A related concept is that of “grit,” which Angela Duckworth documented and wrote her PhD thesis about after discovering that, for example, self-discipline was a more statistically significant predictor of academic success than IQ. Digest that for a moment. The discipline to do homework, keep trying, and put forth sustained effort (i.e., having grit) in school is more important than raw intellect as measured by IQ.

Now, back to mental habits. In my experience, many students, without realizing it, have a habit of adopting a “fixed” mindset about school (i.e., believing that they just don’t have the “talent” for a given subject) to explain a lack of effort or a poor result. Other students have a habit of explaining a lack of understanding or performance on the quality or style of the teacher. You might conceptualize these as common, unproductive mental habits. If you notice yourself thinking this way, consider trying to change your habit to something far more positive.

For example, say you encounter a difficult calculus problem in class.

The current mental habit might go something like:

Cue: you notice you do not understand this problem – at all. You feel lost.

Craving: you don’t want to feel the guilt or bear the responsibility of realizing that with particularly hard work or extra effort, you could understand it. You are busy with many other subjects and activities.

Routine: you tell yourself that the folks that do understand these difficult problems have a natural talent for calculus. They don’t even work as hard as you do, and yet they understand the problem.

Reward: you are mentally “off the hook” and relieved of the responsibility of asking a question in class, staying late to get extra help, or considering getting a tutor or other form of supplementary help.

A different, changed and far more productive mental habit might go something like:

Cue: you notice you do not understand this problem – at all. You feel lost.

Craving: yes, you don’t want to feel the guilt or bear the responsibility of realizing that with particularly hard work or extra effort, you could understand it. You are busy with many other subjects and activities. HOWEVER you also want to do well in school, as you know grades play a large role in getting into a great college. It would feel great to get an A in the class.

Routine: you tell yourself that the folks that do understand these difficult problems have probably put in a fair amount of focused effort. It appears easy now, but that’s because they’ve studied hard outside of class, and if you do the same, you’ll understand this problem and others like it, and will be able to do very well in the class.

Reward: you are mentally “off the hook” as it relates to dealing with your lack of understanding. But now, instead of the reward being a lack of responsibility for the current situation, it is that you have a plan. You’ll ask a question now, or follow up after class, to make sure you understand the problem.

Summary

I hope that you now see that habits, and in particular keystone habits, are incredibly important to understand and, hopefully, harness for good.

In our next and final article, we’ll cover two more ways that students can leverage an understanding of habits to improve performance in school:

  1. Use habits to influence how you spend time or behave before, during, and after class
  2. Use habits that influence how you perform when taking tests