The brain seems to like habits

ArsTechnica’s John Timmer reports on a recent study with monkeys showing that when performing a habitual activity, the brain uses less energy to complete the task.

We are seeing more and more of such reports as neuroscience works to discover exactly how the brain works. What’s striking is how often these new studies seem to confirm what thinkers from Aristotle to William James have been telling us for centuries: turning a desirable behaviour into a habit has tremendous advantages!

What are you studying?

You think you are studying geography, history, science, math . . . and you are. But the real subject, whatever you are studying in school, is yourself.

Do you know yourself? Do you understand yourself? Do you know what sort of things stress you out? How do you dial the stress down to a manageable level? How do you respond to criticism? Are you a leader or a follower? What do you really enjoy? Why do you enjoy those things? What do you really hate? Why? Are you an extrovert, or an introvert? How do you learn? Why are you the kind of person you are? Are you like your parents, or one of them? Have you been shaped by childhood experiences? Are you like other people in your family? in your ethnic group? linguistic group? Are you like others who share your religion, or your nationality? How did you come to be the person you are? And so on.

The more you understand yourself, the more successful you will be not just in school, but in everything you do. And almost every moment of every day provides a new opportunity to learn more about yourself. Problems, disagreements, difficulties of all sorts offer especially good opportunities to think about how you are responding to a certain situation; and what that response tells you about the sort of person you are; and what that experience can teach you that will be useful in the future. As I used to tell my children when they were young, pain is that little friend waving his hand, trying to get your attention. “Over here!” he calls out. “Look over here, there’s something you need to know about! Something you need to learn from!” If you always run away from the pain, run away from conflicts, ignore problems or just endure them until they go away—then you will miss all those opportunities to understand yourself better.

If you do learn to understand yourself, then everything else you study—geography, history, science, math—will be much, much easier. You will earn better results, and you will enjoy your studies more.

Think of it this way: instead of having to learn six or eight subjects, you really only have to learn one: yourself. And the really good news? It’s a subject that you are actually interested in.

Inspiration, ambition, motivation

If you are inspired, ambitious, and motivated, acquiring good habits is easy: follow the advice on this web site, and in my book.

But if you lack inspiration, ambition, and motivation, you are unlikely to make the effort needed to acquire good habits.

What to do?

Talk to people who seem to be inspired, ambitious, and motivated. Find out what drives them. Read about people who have been inspired, ambitious, and motivated and have achieved great things as a result. Seek out people, especially, who are inspired about subjects that leave you bored: maybe they can show you something that will spark your interest. If math is not your thing, for example, find a really good math student, or teacher, and ask: what is it about math that interests and excites you?

“They don’t take notes!”

Today a colleague began talking about his Grade 11 students. “They don’t take notes,” he said in exasperation. “Not a single one of them.”

Another colleague, overhearing us, joined in. “Isn’t that their problem?” he said. “By Grade 11 they should have figured this stuff out. We shouldn’t have to tell them to take notes and use their homework diaries.”

I wrote Good Habits, Good Students primarily for students. Teachers, for a variety of reasons, rarely teach the habits needed to succeed in school. Students are left on their own to “figure it out.” Unfortunately a huge number don’t figure it out, and they usually blame themselves for their academic disappointments: I’m lazy, I’m no good, I’m stupid. I wrote the book to help students acquire the good habits they need, and to convince them that they can be successful.

But I also wrote the book hoping that teachers and schools would realize that they should be teaching habits. If they did, students would achieve much better results on the “material” taught in school, and would believe in their ability to learn, and would be equipped to go on learning on their own when they are out of school. Grade 11, of course, is a bit late to begin.

Imagine what my colleagues would be saying, though, if their students had been learning and practicing good habits for years. It’s a dream, but it would not be particularly difficult or expensive to make it come true.

Good habits: essential but not sufficient

The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty and chaotic. It is difficult to bear the resultant feeling of emptiness, and the vacuum of our minds may only too easily be filled by some big, fantastic notion—political or otherwise—which suddenly seems to illumine everything and to give meaning and purpose to our existence. It needs no emphasis that herein lies one of the great dangers of our time.

—E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful (1973)

So: what kinds of ideas fill your mind?

Where do you need to improve?

From Chapter 2 of Good Habits, Good Students:

Here’s a good way to find out where you need the most improvement: check your report card. Don’t just look at the grades, though. Check the comments your teachers write about each subject.

Far too often when students receive report cards, they check their marks and then stop reading. However, if your reports include comments from each teacher, these can be more useful than the grades when it comes to figuring out what you need to do to improve.

Not all comments by teachers are useful in this way. Some consist mostly of a standard description of what the class has studied in the previous term. There may be only a brief comment on your own work, and sometimes such comments emphasize what is most positive—which is nice, but not helpful if you’re trying to identify your weaknesses.

Sometimes, too, teachers’ comments are written in a kind of secret code I call “report-speak”. “George has a good understanding of blah blah blah”, you read. Sounds good. Actually, however, a “good” understanding may be the third– or fourth–best level, below other possibilities like “excellent” and “very good”. Once you realize this, “good understanding” doesn’t sound so good anymore.

Because comments on reports don’t always include the information you’re looking for, and because they are sometimes written in report-speak, any attempt to use your report card to discover where you most need to improve must include this vital step: asking your teachers, in person.

Before you speak with them, however, do a bit of preparatory work. Continue reading “Where do you need to improve?”

How youth tricks us into developing bad habits

When I was 14 I came home after school and ate enormous amounts of food. I remember eating, for example, an entire half-gallon bucket of vanilla ice cream (more than two litres). Despite this behaviour my tummy stayed slim and I never suffered any ill effects. By the time I was 30, however, the eating habits I acquired in my youth had become toxic, even lethal. My 14-year-old metabolic rate had slowed to a crawl, and all that junk food turned into fat. The habits that worked fine for me as a kid were disastrous for me as an adult.

Something similar happens in school. Does anyone really need to write down homework assignments before Grade 9 or 10? No, not usually. There’s not that much homework, and life is not filled with appointments, meetings, to-do lists, complicated work schedules, and an endless sequence of family obligations.

So as young people we are betrayed into developing bad habits that work fine for us in the short run, but cause us big headaches in the long run.

Do yourself a favour if you’re in Grades 6-9, and try to develop good habits now, not because you need them now, but because you will need them later.

Are you hungry because you’re growing so fast your pants are always too short? Fine: eat! But don’t eat loads of sugar and processed foods. Fill up with whole grains and fruits and vegetables. Drink water, not colas and other sugar-laced beverages.

Are you tempted to skip writing homework assignments in your school agenda or diary because you can remember them just fine—or can ask a classmate later tonight? Write them down anyway, every time, so that using a homework diary becomes as automatic and painless as brushing your teeth. Then when your life becomes really complicated (and it will, I promise!) you will already have one of the most important habits you’ll need to keep everything organized and under control.

Don’t let yourself develop bad habits when you’re young, just because you can get away with them painlessly, because believe me: the pain will come!

How Teachers Can Help

Students can build good habits and break bad ones on their own, if they are determined. But success rates rise dramatically when they get support from teachers, parents, and friends.

So what can teachers do to help?

Require students to write their assignments in a homework diary.

This simple act works wonders. The key is for teachers to require it, not simply remind or nag. Teachers who have the bad habit of shouting out the homework assignment as the lesson is ending and students are packing up encourage students to develop the bad habit of not writing down their assignments. Students who don’t write down the assignment are much more likely to forget it, or to remember it incorrectly.

Instead, teachers should develop some good habits that will help their students develop good habits. Give out the homework assignment before the end of the lesson, and provide time for students to take out their diaries and copy it down. When students are working, move around the room and check homework diaries. Praise those who have written down the assignment; remind those who haven’t, and watch while they do it. Do this every day: daily repetition builds habits.

With a very small investment of class time, teachers can dramatically improve their students’ performance. Not only will students complete your homework assignments—they will develop an essential good habit that will serve them well for years.

Try it. Then, when you see what a difference one teacher’s efforts can make, enlist your colleagues and make this a school-wide initiative.

How to make a new habit stick

Ryan at Learn4Liberty has a nice post about the importance of motivation when trying to break a bad habit or establish a good one. “Repetition helps,” he writes, “but repetition alone will not do it.” I would put this differently: repetition will form a new habit, but without motivation you are unlikely to repeat the action long enough to turn it into a new habit. Check it out, and then tell me what you think.