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Learning to learn 01: Habits

“We make our habits and then our habits make us.” – Charles Nobel

What are habits?

Habits are the automatic actions we take without thinking about them too much. They operate in the background with some studies suggesting that up to 40% of the daily choices we make are unconscious. Our habits also reinforce our sense of identity; what we do says something about who we are. If I choose to go running every day then sooner or later I’ll have become a runner. If you read for 30 minutes every day then you start to think of yourself as a reader. The stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, are informed by the actions we take, which is why habits are an important component of our identities as learners. If you want to be a lifelong learner then you need to take steps that will establish a process whereby you become a lifelong learner. And the better we understand how habits can help establish that process, the more likely we are to succeed.

Why should we focus on habits when it comes to learning?

  • A change in your habits leads to a change in behaviour. A change in your behaviour (what you do) leads to a change in identity (who you are).
  • Habits are force multipliers. If you’re tall you may be a good basketball player but if you’re tall and you practice a lot you may be a great basketball player.
  • Habits precede outcomes. By focusing on the outcome you may lose sight of the small steps you need to take in order to reach it. You must have good habits before you can have good outcomes.
  • The principles of habit building apply to almost any aspect of your life that you’d like to improve, so while this module may help to improve your approach to learning it will almost certainly help you to improve other areas of your life.

The difference between habits and goals

Everyone has goals, which means that having goals in itself doesn’t differentiate those who are successful and those who are not. If you’re not happy with where you are, it’s your habits that need to change, not your goals.

How to create a new habit: The habit loop

Cues are the things that start the habit routine. You can recognise cues because they’re context-specific triggers that immediately precede the set of actions that constitute the routine. Cues can be:

  • Time-based: “At 16:00 every day I will…”
  • Location-based: “When I get home I will…”
  • Preceding events: “When I check my email I also tend to check…”
  • Social: “I notice that I tend to smoke when I’m with..”
  • Emotional: “When I feel down/bored I tend to…”


A good rule of thumb is that the rewards for good habits are usually received in the future but the costs are felt today. For example, working on an assignment now means that you might be missing out on social events but the reward of doing well in the exam only happens at the end of the year. In contrast the rewards for bad habits are experienced in the present while the cost is in the future. For example, watching a movie tonight feels good but the intense pressure and sleepless nights immediately before the exam is only going to be experienced in the future. You should think of your outcomes as lagging measures of your habits.

This can be quite demotivating because you may feel like you’re putting loads of work into changing your habits but not getting any of the rewards for your effort. This is why you need to intervene and create rewards for yourself that you can use in the meantime, while your habit is getting consolidated. For example, instead of waiting until the end of the year to experience the reward of passing the exam, you might decide that your reward for an hour of study is that you get to spend 15 minutes on Instagram. You might even get creative and start using habits to build other habits (a process known as habit stacking). For example, instead of using access to social media as a reward you might decide that every day that you put in an hour or more of review, you’ll go for run outside, or visit a friend. In this way you can start to build new good habits on top of older, more established ones.

If you want to make it easier to create new habits, you should:

  • Make the cue obvious. “When I arrive home after university the first thing I’ll do is [review my notes].”
  • Make the routine easy. “I’d like to spend an hour doing this, but I’m going to start with [15 minutes]”.
  • Make the reward attractive. “When I’m done reviewing my notes, I’ll [go for a run]”.

How to break a bad habit

  • Identify the cue and then remove it. Try to see what it is that’s triggering your negative behaviour and experiment with different cues or routines. For example, if you notice that you check Twitter every time you start studying, what is it about studying that makes you want to distract yourself?
  • Make the routine difficult to perform. For example, remove the Twitter app on your phone and only use the web app to check in. What’s more, you could log out of Twitter every time you exit the browser. If you use a password manager it’ll be even more of a hassle because you won’t know the password to log in.
  • Identify the reward. Sticking with the Twitter example, what is it about checking Twitter 5 minutes after studying that reinforces the desire to do this? Is it that you find studying boring and are looking for any distraction, and Twitter happens to be convenient?
  • Experiment with changing the cues that trigger the behaviour that you want to change. For example, is there a different way you can get the reward? Or, can you substitute one reward for another?

Tips for creating new habits

  • Focus on one habit at a time. The more new habits you try to introduce the more unlikely it is that you’re stick to any of them.
  • Try to implement your new habit for at least one month. Some new habits will take longer to form, while others may take less time. The important thing to remember is that this isn’t an overnight process and that you should give yourself plenty of time to consolidate your new habit.
  • Never fail twice. Invariably you’re going to miss one day in the process of establishing a new habit and the tendency may be to give up entirely. By allowing yourself the chance to “fail once” you can still get back on track.
  • Your new habit should be very easy to complete. If you intend reading for 30 minutes every day, start with reading for 5 minutes. Seriously. Make it that easy. After a couple of weeks, you’ll be someone who reads every day. It’s much easier to iterate on a habit that exists that to try and create a new habit that you find hard to do.
  • Experiment with habit stacking, which is a way to use established habits to trigger others.
  • Look for keystone habits, which are habits that may lead to other other lifestyle changes e.g. a daily “exercise” habit may lead to changes in your eating.
  • Announce your intention to change your habit so that others can hold you accountable on those days when you’re lacking the motivation to stick it out.
  • Track your progress by creating habit streaks. It may seem like a cheap trick but the reality is that there’s psychological pressure to keep your streak going once it’s established.
  • Set up your environment to avoid distractions. The more distractions there are around you the more likely it is that you’ll struggle with your new habit. (look out for the next module on focusing and avoiding distractions).

Examples of new habits you might want to try

  • Get 8 hours of sleep a night.
  • Review your notes from class every day for 1 hour.
  • Read for pleasure for 30 minutes every day.
  • Go for a 30 minute run, 3 times a week.
  • Ask the lecturer 1 question in every class, every day.
  • Attend every lecture.
  • Limit yourself to 1 hour on social media every day.

While the habits above won’t automatically change your life overnight, they’ll each certainly get you one step closer to a more sane, less stressful approach to learning.


You can download a summary of these notes as a slideshow presentation in English or Portuguese.*

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* Thank you to João Paulo Venâncio (Professor Adjunto Principal) at the Curso de Licenciatura em Fisioterapia, a physiotherapy programme at CESPU (ESSVA) in Vila Nova de Famalicão, Portugal. We are extremely grateful for his contribution to this project.