Introduction to Learning Habits

I have a bad habit.

Actually, I have more than one bad habit, but this one bothers me particularly. I tried breaking it several times, without success. My best idea to get rid of it relied on two key components: willpower and goal setting.

The bad habit I’m talking about is checking my phone. I check my phone when it vibrates, when the display lights up, sometimes when I find myself confronted with a problem that’s hard to crack. I check it when I’m tired, when I receive notifications, sometimes I even unlock it to have a look at the home screen only to lock it a few seconds later again.

For me it’s a bad habit because the distraction it causes is a threat to so many things that I hold dear: focus, connection, creativity, happiness, mindfulness and in general the flow needed to learn and develop effectively.

At the end of last year I started researching habits (again) and read an excellent book on the topic. It helped me to break through this seemingly impenetrable pattern—I’ll tell you more about the how below. It also made me see habits wherever I look and renewed my interest in the role of habits in learning and development and beyond.

The Role of Habits in Learning

Habits can be helpful or hurtful in many aspects of life. Our personal growth and development are no exception.

But why did I choose to pick up the conversation on learning habits now? Well, because the world we live in is changing in crazy ways. Our parents and grandparents could have studied something in their twenties and used it their whole lives. But that stopped applying to us. Technology and science are rapidly evolving and they are just two factors that influence the need for individuals to change and adapt. Also, what the long-term future will look like is still kind of fuzzy. There are so many things that happened, are still happening, and will keep happening in the world that can drastically shape how we’re going to live years from now. Things we don’t control, but that will impact us directly whether we like it or not.

So the outside world is influencing the need for individual change. But so far our learning journeys have mostly been driven by educational institutions. You went there, they were telling you what to learn, how to learn, hence influencing our learning habits big time. The how to learn though wasn’t covered as well as it should have been for most of us. So once out of those educational institutions we all woke up with more agency than we ever had over our learning journeys. A lot of agency, but no specific knowledge about how to keep growing, in a world that demands constant change. That’s confusing and overwhelming, to say the least.

Given all this, the conversation around learning how to learn has intensified. And I believe that habits are part of that story.

Let’s face it, learning something new is not an easy task. The brain power you use is considerate. So anything that can help ease the process is welcomed. I’m not saying habits can perform miracles. Focus, effort, and intentionality are still playing a big part in you acquiring knowledge, skills, unlearning and changing behaviors. But habits can make your learning activity more useful and easy by creating automatic actions you perform to get started, focus, make sense of whatever you’re learning, or reflect.

Still, there’s another side to the story. Different habits can also impede learning. Checking my phone when reading a book disrupts my focus. Or always choosing to watch tv over reading a book won’t help me grow.

So how can we acquire healthier learning habits and get rid of those that are not helpful?

  1. First, understand how habits work;
  2. Second, have a good overview of the habits that facilitate and enhance learning and those that impede it;
  3. Third, apply behavioral change techniques to get rid of or acquire healthy learning habits.

And this is exactly what I’m covering going forward.

Habits and the Human Brain

As I was mentioning before, habits are automatic behaviors performed to ease our life. Instead of covering the usual knowledge about habits, I’d like to point out some research that’s maybe less discussed.

The main word related to habit is automaticity. Automaticity has the following features: efficiency, lack of awareness, unintentionality, and uncontrollability. Habits are basically behaviors. But they have some specific properties. When we perform them, we perform them with ease and maybe even without being aware of what we’re doing. Although this might sound pretty bad, (our brain just doing things in our name) habits actually help us save brain power. Given the amount of information we take in every day, cheers to them, they are really helpful!

Now, habits are also pretty diverse. Some are more complex than others. Picking up your journal right before going to sleep and writing down your thoughts is more complex than picking up your phone to check the latest notifications. So research has shown that:

  • First, some habits can become more automatic than others. Basically picking up your phone can become highly automatic, it has higher automaticity levels, while picking up your journal has lower automaticity levels;
  • Second, the number of repetitions required for different habits to become automatic is quite different. It might be enough to pick up a phone 10 times before the habit was installed, but 10 times might be far from the needed repetitions for journaling to become a habit.

I will jump to my own conclusions here, but probably it has a lot to do with how often we encounter the cue to perform the habit, the brain power needed while performing it, the rewards (be them intrinsic or extrinsic) we get and how fast we get them.

So when thinking about acquiring or getting rid of certain habits, you need to be aware of this and set realistic goals and expectations.

How to Establish Habits Effectively

So, let’s have a look at how to adopt new and stop unhelpful habits. How can automatic behavior be changed? As I said at the beginning, good intentions alone are not enough when it comes to behavior change. Human beings are wired to stick with habits as long as these are easy to perform, attractive and satisfying. Unfortunately there are bad habits that meet all of these criteria—it seems like we’re not very well prepared for a rapidly changing world, until we learn how to hack our own system. This said, it’s worth looking at the factors that influence behavior change and understand how to use this knowledge to build helpful habits and break bad ones. There are several ways to look at this, I’ll shed light on two models: the Ten Conditions for Change and the Laws of Behaviour Change. Let’s start with the former.

Ten Conditions for Change

In order to change behavior, certain conditions have to be met. These conditions are clustered into three phases: the decision phase, the action phase and the continuation phase.

Decision phase—Without an initial decision we are unlikely to change behavior. First you have to consider changing it, develop a desire to engage in the behavior and develop the intention to change it. Once all of these boxes are checked, it’s time to take action.

Action phase—Firstly, we need to make sure we remember to take a specific action that we believe will help us achieve our goal. We need to prioritise the action, which is choosing it over another available action. We need to know how to perform the action and have all resources available to actually perform it. Last but not least in the action phase, we need to have the physical and mental capability of performing it. This relates to different aspects like disabilities or handicaps, or simply skill sets that are needed to actually being able to do something—if you want to establish the habit of riding your bike to work everyday, you first need to learn how to ride a bike.

Continuation phase—The last cluster is called continuation and it’s actually not a cluster, but rather a single requirement: once we have decided and started to adopt a behavior, we need to maintain it. This one is tricky, right? Let’s all remember the first weeks after setting our new year’s resolution. We’ve decided to stop eating chocolate, we’ve stopped to do so and then we…start eating chocolate again. Why? The good and the bad thing about habits is that changing them is hard. We’re not stronger than our system, so we have to be smarter.

As mentioned in the beginning, I used to be a believer in willpower, and I don’t say willpower is useless, I’m just saying that when it comes to habits, it’s rarely an effective method to be successful. Habits are automatic behaviors and often times, we are not aware we decide to perform them—sometimes we are not even aware we do perform them. So let’s look at the Laws of Behaviour Change and how those helped me break the picking-up-my-phone-all-the-time habit.

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The Laws of Behavior Change

There are four laws of behaviour change: Make It Obvious, Make It Attractive, Make It Easy and Make It Satisfying. All of them have an inversion: Make It Invisible, Make It Unattractive, Make It Difficult and Make It Unsatisfying. That’s the great thing, they can be used to establish or break a bad habit by installing a better one. The two laws that I used to break the picking-up-my-phone-all-the-time habit are Make It Invisible and Make It Difficult. It’s as simple as effective.

Make It Difficult—The great thing about this law is that you can add different levels of difficulty to break a bad habit. Small changes can make a huge difference, but sometimes we will have to apply more radical measures. Imagine you want to watch less TV when you sit down on your sofa—how can you make this more difficult? Place your remote besides the television so you have to stand up to switch it on. Not difficult enough? Disconnect your TV from electricity. Not difficult enough? Put your television in a closet. Radical, I know. The last approach leads me to the second law. A television in a closet is not only difficult to get, it’s also invisible.

Make it Invisible—We are more likely to do something that is in front of us and easy to do, behaviors are often triggered by visual cues. Do you want to eat less candy? Put it in a drawer and place a bowl of fruit on your table instead. Want to read more books? Have a book ready to read at your nightstand and another one at your sofa. Or do it like Bill Gates—buy a bag, fill it with great books and go on a reading vacation without anything else.

The solution to my distraction problem is also a bag, only a much smaller one. I originally purchased it to store cables in it. One day I found it on my table and had the idea to put my phone inside while I had important work to finish. It worked wonders and I thought about regular occasions to place my phone in it’s new sleeping bag. I noted them down and put four stickers on the bag: “Until 8:30”, “Productive Work”, “Playtime” and “After 22:30”. I feel a bit nerdy taking it to the office and on trips, but it does its job too well. It has reduced my screen time by 75% and my phone pick-ups by more than 50%.

How is a phone in a bag a learning habit? It makes me read one book after another, because there’s not much to do without my phone before I go to bed. I sleep more, which is essential for memory consolidation and it makes me build fancier Lego cars with my little one (though they still seem quite uncreative compared to his).

Why does it work? Taking a phone out of a bag is not hard, but it’s hard enough to introduce a millisecond of hesitation which allows me to check if my move is intentional. Additionally, I see no display lighting up with notifications.

A simple zipper allows me to read more, sleep more and spend more focused time with my kids and at work. System hacked.

Habits that can interfere with learning

Now, before jumping straight to acquiring and changing new habits because of the excitement I (hopefully) inspired, there’s something else you need to remember. Habits are influenced by other habits. Especially the most complex ones. A nice trick is to start by creating a map of your current habits and how they interact with each other. Let’s take an example.

After reading this you finally decide to take upon yourself meditating in the morning! But right now you go to sleep at 2 A.M, wake up at 10 A.M and jump straight into work. Pretty hard to integrate meditation into this schedule, right? So how about you start trying to go to sleep earlier, wake up earlier, and after you succeed add meditation to your morning routine.

The main idea I want to leave you with is that some habits can interfere with your learning habits in a negative way. No matter how much intention and willpower you have, acquiring and changing habits might be a bit hard if you don’t act upon those negative habits first.

Top of my mind, some of the negative influences you might want to look into are:

  • Watching too much television;
  • Working overtime;
  • Eating recklessly;
  • Having a bad sleep schedule;
  • Drinking to little water;
  • Not exercising;
  • Not taking breaks;
  • Spending way too much time on social media;
  • Skimming books/ articles;
  • Procrastination;
  • Jumping from one task/ project to another without pause;
  • Keeping unhealthy relationships;

Examples of great learning habits

Now, I don’t want to end on a negative note. So I’ve asked some nice people about their learning habits. I was damn inspired by what they had to say and maybe you will too. I’ll leave you with the same question: What’s one learning habit you’re proud of?

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