Creating new habits for study success

It’s one thing to know you need to use certain study strategies and techniques (e.g. create mind maps, break your work down into small chunks and review your notes regularly). But knowledge of these strategies is only the starting point.

Next you have to apply these strategies. You need to build these strategies into your daily routine. This part can be challenging.

How do you integrate new behaviours into your daily life?

Enter the psychology of making (and breaking) habits!

What are habits?

Habits are behaviors you perform on a regular basis that don’t require much mental effort. They’re automatic. Like a cyborg, you carry them out without even thinking.

If you break down any habitual behaviour, you’ll see that it comprises of three parts:

1. A clear cue: something that triggers the behavior.
2. A routine you follow: you’re in full on cyborg mode carrying out the habitual response.
3. A reward: this comes from engaging in the behavior. This is what keeps you performing the behavior again and again. No reward? No habit formation. It’s simple.

This is why procrastination is such an easy (bad) habit to develop. The reward happens so quickly. One moment your brain is saying, “Ah man, this is painful. I don’t want to do this!” and then, in the next moment, you go watch a cat video and … Boom! You experience instant relief from the pain.

How long does it take to form a new habit?

You’ve probably heard 21 days. But this is a myth.

The 21 day myth originates from an old self-help book from the 1960s called ‘Psycho-cybernetics’ by Plastic Surgeon Dr Maxwell Maltz. In this book, Dr Maltz writes about how he noticed amputees took about 21 days to adjust to losing a limb. Based on this, he argues that it takes people 21 days to adjust to any major life change.

But that was just a plastic surgeon’s opinion! To then go and apply 21 days to all behaviours is a gross generalization.

So what does Science have to say on the matter?

A study by Lally et al. (2010) found it took between 18-254 days to form a new habit and 66 days on average!

Missing a day or two here and there didn’t make much difference. But the earlier repetitions made the biggest difference in terms of habit formation.

As Jeremy Dean (author of the book ‘Making Habits, Breaking Habits’) states:

“Each time a behaviour is repeated, you go a little way towards increasing the habit’s automaticity. Exactly how many repetitions are required will depend on your lifestyle and the exact habit you’re trying to develop.”

So it turns out forming new habits is like building muscles. You just have to repeat the behavior over and over again. You need to get your reps in. `

So here are some other ways you can establish new habits:

1. Establish a clear cue

How will you remember to engage in the new behavior? You need a clear cue. Your cue needs to be something you see or hear. It can’t be a feeling, because feelings change all the time (they’re too unreliable).

Here is an example of a clear cue for a new behaviour:

New behavior: To keep a gratitude journal daily.
Cue: Place journal on bedside table with a pencil.
Execution: When you wake up and roll over, you see the journal and that’s your cue to pick it up and fill it in. If your journal is buried under a pile of books, there’s a good chance it won’t get filled in.

2. Attach the new behavior to a pre-existing habit

What do you already do on a regular basis? Brush your teeth? Eat breakfast? Attach the new behavior to something you regularly do. Basically, an old habit becomes the cue for the new behaviour.

For example, you could say, “When I put my toothbrush down then I will fill in my gratitude journal”.

3. Re-engineer your environment

Can you change your environment to help you engage in new behaviours and stop engaging in bad habits? I bet you can. It just takes a bit of creative thinking.

Let me give you an example from my own life …

I used to waste a lot of time checking Facebook and my email. In the last 6 months of my PhD (crunch time), I made it extremely difficult for myself to waste time online. Here’s what I did:

1) I installed an Internet blocker application (Freedom)
2) I didn’t have wifi at home
3) I had an old flip phone that could only send and receive texts and make calls (no Internet access)

I realise this sounds kind of extreme but desperate times call for desperate measures! I had this sinking feeling that I would never finish my PhD unless I removed these temptations from my environment. Well, it worked. I finished my PhD!

4. Start Small

Break the behavior down into such small steps that you can’t fail. Ask yourself, “What can I manage right now? What doesn’t feel hard?”.

I know a dentist who is really clever at getting his patients to floss. He tells them to do the following:

Day 1: Take out the floss
Day 2: Cut the floss
Day 3: Floss three teeth

With this simple, baby-step approach, flossing rates dramatically improved!

Now you want to take this idea and apply it to your studies.
It could look like this:

Day 1: Take out a pen, some palm cards and your notes.
Day 2: Make five flash cards.
Day 3: Make ten flash cards.

You get the idea.

5. Activate your prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that is associated with complex behaviours such as planning and decision-making. Turn on this part of your brain and you’re more likely to execute your plans.

How do you activate your prefrontal cortex?

Try the following:

1) Eat foods that are high in quality protein (e.g. tofu and beans)
2) Practise meditation
3) Exercise
4) Decrease stress in your life

6. Override your thoughts and feelings

You may not always feel motivated or inspired to carry out the new behavior, especially when you’re feeling tired. But do it anyway.

As Dr Helen Street states in her book ‘Life Overload’:

“You can’t always control your feelings and thoughts but you can control your behaviours. Accept that you are tired, but challenge the thought telling you it is all too much. Control your behavior by taking action now.”

7. Ask yourself ‘Why?’

Why do you want to adopt this new behavior? What will this new habit help you to achieve?

Digging deep down into your motivations for adopting a behaviour can help strengthen your commitment to the new behaviour. Check in with yourself: are you doing this for social approval and/or some financial reward (extrinsic gains)? Or are you doing this because you’ll become a better person and develop some new skills (intrinsic gains)?

A word of warning: if you’re being driven by extrinsic gains then it’s going to be harder to maintain your motivation in the long run.

To sum up

Remember, the more times you take action and carry out the new behavior, the quicker you go into cyborg mode and form new habits! This means that when you feel tired, you won’t need to rely on willpower to push through.

So here’s a challenge for you: think of a new study strategy or behaviour that you want to make a regular part of your day. What cue will trigger the behaviour? How can you break it down? Is there anything you can do to re-engineer your environment? Why would you want to adopt this new strategy? Feel free to share below.