Skills and habits

Sometime in the 1990s I was walking in Portland, Oregon with a friend when he saw a computer store and said, “Do you mind if we stop here for a moment?”

We walked in. The young man behind the counter looked at me and said, “Mr. MacKnight!” I had no idea who he was.

“Guilty as charged,” I replied. “Who are you?”

He told me his name, and it rang a bell—one of my students from several years before. We began chatting, and I began remembering more about him. He had been my student for just one year, in Grade 12. Finally I asked him what he had learned in that class. He paused, looked puzzled, and then brightened. 

A lot is two words!” he cried triumphantly. 

That may seem very little to remember from a high school English class, but if someone asked me what I remember learning in high school, I would be hard-pressed to recall anything at all.

So what does stay with us after all those books and facts and lessons are forgotten?

Skills and habits. They remain for years. Both of them are formed by repetition over a long period of time. 

In one sense, repetition is easy. No genius or special aptitude is required. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and sooner or later your skills improve. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and eventually you will have formed a fixed habit. 

Do you want to improve your reading skills? Read every day!

Do you want to improve your writing skills? Write every day!

Do you want to form the good habit of checking for assignments and deadlines every day? Then set a reminder, and check every day!

It’s easy.

Except that it’s not. 

If you love playing basketball, then you enjoy the daily repetition of shooting and dribbling. If you love reading, then reading every day is a pleasure, not a chore. 

When the skills and habits you desire involve activities that are not immediately enjoyable, however, repeating them every day is something you dread. You make excuses. You develop, through repetition, the habit of procrastinating.

To practice those “unpleasant” skills and habits, therefore, you need help. Maybe an electronic reminder will be enough. Maybe teaming up with a friend will do it. Maybe asking a parent for daily reminders will work for you. When you don’t enjoy what you know is good for you, when motivation is too often overcome by laziness, you will need to find support of some kind.

The good news? Once you do that, it’s a simple matter of repetition. And that’s easy.

Author: Eric MacKnight

I have been teaching English since 1980 in the United States, Morocco, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, The Netherlands, and China. Good Habits, Good Students is my first book.

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