Hope school is going well. Or welcome back? I don’t really know the timeline for when this post is going up so I’m not sure how to kick it off. I’m writing this during the last few weeks of summer so my thoughts are on getting ready for the upcoming school year.
And this new school year I’ve got this new blog, so I’ve been thinking a lot about my blog series and what I want to do with it. The idea is that I’ll be filing through current biological research and mining out nuggets of self help wisdom on a whole list of subjects. Most of the stuff I’m looking at relates primary to me and what I struggle with in college: sleep, having a social life, organization, studying, and not getting horrifically sunburned among other things. So I’ll do some writing about that.
Today I want to talk about something I’ve always struggled with: coming back from a break.
The beginning of every fall quarter, my summer inertia collides with the new school year’s demands. Right now, I’m sitting here on a breezy afternoon with literally no obligation to do anything other than spend time binging Netflix and playing video games for at least the next four days. When I compare this to the new school year and its requirements for me to wake up, go to class, take notes, submit assignments, and manage extracurriculars I get protective of the laziness I’ve developed. So I started thinking, what’s the best way for me to make the transition from summer break to school?
What I’ve done this summer essentially comes down to habit formation. I’ve formed a habit of napping on couches and spending lazy days with friends while working only a few days a week. This school year, I need to form a habit of studying often while maintaining my friendships and participating in clubs.
Fortunately for me, biologists and psychologists have done a fair bit of thinking about this conundrum I’m in. Habits play a pretty enormous role in human behavior and their impact cannot be understated. Searching for the word “habit” on Google Scholar comes up with an array of studies pertaining to everything from neurobiology to the aggregate analysis of the stock market.
According to evolutionary biologists, habits let our brains maintain maximum efficiency. Your brain, at two percent body weight, uses a fifth of the energy you consume in a day. (1) This may seem large, but considering your brain’s role in your life, it isn’t very much. Think about the amount of information you encounter on a daily basis and consider that only 20% of your energy goes to handling it. A group of biologists believe habit formation exists as one tool the brain uses to create this massive efficiency. The brain establishes cues which trigger habits without requiring much processing power. (1)
For example, when you climb into a car you regularly drive, you undergo a number of tasks to begin driving. You probably do not give much thought to these tasks. Your brain may categorize you entering the car as a cue to begin the habit of engaging the brake and placing the key in the ignition. This action may cue you to turn the key, and so on and so forth. The information compiled from the sight of your car, feel of your key, and smell of your seats all can be readily ignored because this situation has been encountered many times before.
An example of a possible cue which can engage a particular habit. (source)
Neat trick, Brain, but how does this help me with school? Well, behaviorists have used this cue-habit theory to make forming a new habit a pretty straightforward four-step process.
Step 1: Make a decision (2). This will be the easiest step. What habit do you want to form? For example, I want to study a few hours every day. Your habit may be sleeping at a consistent time, checking for new assignments on a regular basis, eating better, etc.
Step 2: Cross the “intention-behavior gap”. The intention-behavior gap represents the true obstacle to good habit formation. Studies demonstrate that of those who complete step 1, only 47% create a new habit due to a failure in step 2 (2). A large number of students want to study a few hours a day, but very few do. Research shows this results from lack of planning. (2) In the
absence of a contradictory habit, my old habits will remain at large. Without planning and mentally deciding to study in my free time, I will default to my summer free time decisions of watching Netflix and playing Nintendo Switch. The key here is to plan your time and your new habit as well as to identify what cue starts the habit you want to replace. Look at your class schedule and slot in the clubs and social activities you want to do using a calendar or other planning tool. Now look at the new habit you want to form. For me, my classes don’t start until the afternoon. As such, morning will be my ideal study time. My cues for wasting free time tend to be access to technology. If free time presents itself I will habitually reach for my phone or computer and waste it. So, in those blocks of time I’ll be setting reminders that pop up on my devices which will, hopefully, cue studying.
Researchers also suggest developing a plan for potential failures to increase success in crossing the intention-behavior gap. (2) I love science, but due to past habits and laziness I’m more likely to open Reddit than a textbook. To deal with this I’ll install an extension on my web browser that blocks Reddit when I’m hoping to work.
Finally I’ll develop a new cue of going to the library. Creating an association of the physical location with a solid several hours studying/writing/work will hopefully drive home the new good habit. Take some time to develop a plan for new cues and your new habit.
Step 3: Repetition (2). Habits require consistency. The formation of a truly autonomous habit exists on an asymptote (the name of the curve in the image below, which comes directly from the cited study – source). Scientists tell
us the curve here levels off at 66 days on average. At 66 days you will most likely have formed as automatic a habit as can be formed. Holding on for 66 days can be accomplished through using intrinsic and external motivators. Intrinsic motivators include the positive feelings you gain from accomplishing your goals and the knowledge that your new habit will help you do better on a daily basis. External motivators should be used on the days the intrinsic motivation fails. (2) If there’s a day where the call to Reddit is too strong and I really truly don’t have the willpower to study, some kind of bribe may be in order. For me it’ll probably be Redbull. But it can be anything for you.
Step 4: Repetition with Purpose. The final step works as an extension of the third. Create fallbacks such that you cannot fail. (2) Make your habit an if-then statement. “If I arrive here or do this, then I will follow through with my new habit”. Use friends and technology as a safety net and do not let yourself fail in the 66 day window. Have friends text you. Set reminders on your phone. Be creative.
And with all that you’ll have a new habit that will hopefully have you on the way to a more successful school year. I’ll make sure to follow up on my journey to daily studying in my next post. And if you have any questions on anything I wrote about here I’d love to hear them. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be glad to see if there isn’t an answer in the research! Good luck with the new year. Study hard and don’t take it all too seriously. I’m sure you’ll do great. As for me, I’m going to get back to finishing my summer.
(1) Hodgson, Geoffrey M. “Choice, Habit and Evolution.” Journal of Evolutionary Economics, vol. 20, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1—18., doi:10.1007/s00191-009-0134-z. (Link)
(2) Lally, Phillippa, and Benjamin Gardner. “Promoting Habit Formation.” Health Psychology Review, vol. 7, no. sup1, 11 Oct. 2013, doi:10.1080/17437199.2011.603640. (Link)