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.

How to feel okay

1. Everyone wants to feel okay.

When we don’t feel okay, we do something to make ourselves feel better. There are good ways, and not-so-good ways, to do this. Good ways include going for a walk, calling a friend on the telephone, eating an apple. Not-so-good ways include making somebody else feel bad, gorging on sweets, or . . . sticking a needle in your arm. Just about all of us make ourselves feel better by using our strengths. If we are good athletes, we go with that. If we are very beautiful, or handsome, we rely on that. If we are very clever, we use that. This natural tendency to go with our strengths can, however, cause problems. For example, the star athlete may stop working at her studies because she doesn’t find the sort of easy, immediate success in class that she does on the playing field. Or the very clever person may alienate the people around him by constantly reminding them how smart he is. How do you make yourself feel okay?

2. Pain is your friend.

Pain is that little guy jumping up and down, waving his arms, trying to get your attention. “Hey, you! Look at me! You’ve got something to deal with here, and something to learn! Pay attention!” People who are not really our friends will give up on us. If we push them hard enough, even people who really love us will finally give up on us. Not pain. You can try to ignore him, run away from him, drown him in booze (or any other distraction you prefer) but he stays right there until you pay attention to him. He is trying to make you pay attention to some sort of problem, to fix it if you can and to learn from it so it doesn’t keep repeating itself. So then the question is . . .

3. What is your problem?

We all have problems. What’s yours? How can you fix it? How can you stop yourself from running into it again and again and again? This is the real work of being human, of growing and learning and developing. Think of a baby, just learning to walk. His problem is, he can’t stand up. Or if he does manage to stand up for a moment, he loses his balance and falls down. Once, twice, three times, ten times. It frustrates him, makes him angry, makes him want to scream, makes him want to cry. If he stops trying and just cries, it will take him much longer to learn to walk. The solution to his problem is patient, determined effort; the only way he can fail is to stop trying. Lots of other problems are just like this—but not all of them. In other cases, doing the same thing over and over again will get you nowhere. In still other cases the problem may be something we cannot change or control. So, what is your problem, exactly, and how can you best deal with it? That’s what you need to find out.

4. We can all use help.

That baby will learn to walk a bit sooner if somebody gives him a hand to hold onto and keep him steady on his feet. You and I will learn from our problems and move on, instead of staying stuck on them, if we get some help from someone who has been there before us, who can see the situation more clearly than we can, who can point us in the right direction. It might be a friend, a family member, a counselor or teacher or therapist or doctor, or a neighbour. Find someone who can help you, and ask for help. If the first person you ask is not the right person, keep searching: someone out there is able to help you and will be happy to do it. Because we all want to feel okay, and one of the best ways to feel okay is to help someone else.

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?

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 deal with organization problems

Dr. Mel Levine of All Kinds of Minds has excellent advice for teachers and parents trying to help a disorganized student. A common mistake, he says, is to nag and threaten. “You won’t always have me here to help you”, etc. The truth, says Levine, is that as adults we can almost always find someone—a spouse, friend, or colleague—to help us.