Helping Students Build Successful Habits

Action trumps self-motivation!

Although self-motivation is important for helping students fulfil their potential, it is generally fickle as a standalone strategy. A phenomenon known as ‘decision fatigue’ means that we have a limited amount of energy over a given day for making choices; including motivating ourselves into action.

So rather than focusing solely on motivation (i.e. the feeling that causes action), perhaps we should also help students focus on action itself – specifically how to form effective habits?

After all, it is the repetition of successful ‘actions’ over a constant period of time that leads to long term success. In this sense, ‘Action’ trumps ‘self-motivation’!

So how can we build habits?

Unfortunately, just thinking about desirable habits is not enough to actually form them. For example, consider how difficult it would be to become good at the guitar with no plan to put aside set times in the week to identify and implement the desired habits.

Thus, building effective habits is about using a system that can help one identify and keep accountable to the ‘right’ habits. Without a system – all effort will be likely futile.

Building Effective Habits

Below is a series of steps (i.e. a system) to build effective habits. If you’re a teacher, perhaps you may like to share these tips with your students?

  1. Self-awareness – Understand the ‘small things’/actions underpinning success. Consider areas focussing on study, learning, mental & physical well-being. Reflect on and identify existing personal ineffective and effective habits in relation to these areas.
  2. Target – Write down target habits for change/implementation. Include those which you would like to;
  •     ‘Start’ – Specifying effective habits you would like to implement. This could include swapping ineffective to effective habits (e.g. swapping watching T.V immediately after school with going for a 15 min walk).
  • ‘Continue’ – effective habits already in your repertoire/ successfully implemented.
  • ‘Stop’ – ineffective or counterproductive habits you would like to stop.

3.  Implement – Aim to make 1-3 target habit changes per week. Try to choose a mix of ‘start’, ‘stop’ ‘continue’ habits. Start with a few simple changes, progressing to more difficult habits over time. This will allow you to get some ‘quick wins’ on the board and build some momentum.

4.  Review – Habits should be ideally viewed as a process as opposed to a destination. Therefore constant refinement and improvement is needed. Without review, subsequent effort is likely to be misguided and misinformed. Putting aside as little as 20 mins ‘review time’ aside per week to assess progress will help you note successes and make refinements as need be.

Guiding Principles

Although not really a direct step in the process, there are some guiding principles to help habit formation easier. These include the following;

  • Start small and easy – make sure new habits are small that it is too easy not to do it. (E.g., if you want to start jogging, see if you can jog for 2 minutes and increase in increments of 2 minutes).
  • Swap out bad habits – It is much easier to swap out bad for good habits than to simply stop them. For this you need to be aware of the ‘cue’ causing the habit. (E.g. Upon feeling hungry after school, consider replacing chocolate biscuits with fruit or other healthy food options).
  • Consider the environment – Removing distractions and temptations from your environment will make it much easier for you to implement effective, and break ineffective habits. (E.g. removing junk food from your shopping trolley will help you eat healthier).
  • Use existing apps and resources – There are many apps available to help habit formation easier. Habitica ( is one example of a habit-building and productivity app that treats your real life like a game! In-game rewards and social encouragement help you keep to your habit commitments.


Doing things just when you feel like it, is seldom an effective template for self-improvement. Instead, using a system to help implement, monitor and refine the ‘little things’ (i.e. actions) critical to success, is a much more reliable alternative.

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