All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,—practical, emotional, and intellectual,—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be. __ William James in 1892
Our habits make us who we are. Once learned, these habits tend to be unconscious from start to finish. Clearly it is best to learn good habits well, beginning in childhood. Habits of thought, habits of action — the principle is the same.
The typical “habit loop” consists of a “cue” — a “craving” — a “routine” — and a “reward.” Something inside or outside of us triggers a conscious or unconscious cue. This cue calls up a craving which then motivates us to perform a routine. Successful performance of the routine results in a reward. To set good habits for young children, we need to exercise some ingenuity to make the learning of good habits as easy as possible.
Making a New Habit Easy
Jim Cathcart’s tale of the running shoes:
I needed an action that I knew I could get myself to do, so I set a minimum commitment: Even if I could not make myself run every day, at least I could make myself available for a run. I grabbed a piece of paper, picked up my pen, and wrote, “I will put on my jogging shoes and walk outside to the curb every day, no matter what else is going on.” __ The Self-Motivation Handbook by Jim Cathcart
By setting an easy goal, Jim Cathcart built a lifelong habit of health and fitness that served him for 30 years and counting. Once he was at the curb with his jogging shoes on, it was easy to walk or run some distance on suitable days. This allowed him to drop 30 pounds to his ideal weight, and maintain ideal weight ever since.
BJ Fogg’s tale of dental floss:
I asked myself: How can I make flossing easier to do?
I came up with an answer I didn’t dare tell my hygienist. She would have been horrified.
I decided to floss just one tooth.
After I brushed my teeth in the morning I would floss just one tooth. __ BJ Fogg in Tiny Habits
Once you have flossed one tooth, it is easy to floss the rest.
James Clear’s “Make it Easy” advice on habits:
Habits are easier to build when they fit into the flow of your life. You are more likely to go to the gym if it is on your way to work . . .
The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to [make good habits easier and bad habits harder].
When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. __ James Clear in Atomic Habits
Making the Habit Cue Easy and Obvious Reinforces the Behaviour
Putting a full bottle/thermos of water in plain sight and within easy reach makes it more likely that it will be used. The same principle applies to a toothbrush, a bath towel, dish-washing tools, or any other useful cue that helps to encourage a good habit.
Below is another way to look at the habit loop with the emphasis on the “hook” concept that is popular in writing, advertising, public speaking, and political/religious/military recruiting. In this approach, finishing the “habit lazy eight” with an investment, the author turns the loop into a growth tool.
- The trigger is the actuator of a behavior—the spark plug in the Hook Model. Triggers come in two types: external and internal.
- After the trigger comes the intended action.
- Research shows that levels of dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state, activating the parts associated with wanting and desire. Although classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards are prevalent in habit-forming technologies as well.
- The last phase of the Hook is where the user is asked to do bit of work… now that the user’s brain is swimming in dopamine from the anticipation of reward in the previous phase, it’s time to pay some bills.
This approach to habit formation was new to me, but I am beginning to see that what I first thought was a “lazy eight” is actually an infinity sign. Just as in a loop, the infinity loop feeds back into itself, but it includes an “investment” step that raises the performance bar for the next time through — hence the reference to infinity (as in “approaching infinity”).
Remember, once habits are learned they tend to remain largely unconscious as long they fit smoothly into your routine. Newer habits are built on top of older habits or work alongside. Sometimes a new habit will displace an older habit if it seems to serve a purpose in a better way.
Since habit formation is such a crucial part of raising a child, we will be spending more time with the underlying ideas — and findings from cognitive science research that further our understanding of the underlying concepts of habit formation and dissolution.
So far as we are thus mere bundles of habit, we are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. And since this, under any circumstances, is what we always tend to become, it follows first of all that the teacher’s prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life. Education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists. __ William James