One of the best (and some might feel the worst) things about the Christmas holidays is the expectation to spend quality time with everyone that we know.
"Shall we squeeze a coffee in?" or "How about a get together over a bottle of wine? It is Christmas!" This year my catch up conversations with friends have touched upon a subject usually reserved for the small hours of NewYear's Day.
Many of my friends have told me that next year will be different. One is planning a marathon and another wants to save up enough money to move house. Predictably we have also had conversations about losing weight, changing jobs and giving up alcohol. We all have our own hopes and dreams and if you were to listen in on our December conversations, then January is likely to mark the start of seismic change.
Let's be honest though, it probably won't happen. This has nothing to do with our will power; we are all managing careers, families, homes and fitness regimes. Perhaps our likely failure is a result of our lack of strategy. To coin a phrase; do the habits that we have today match the dreams that we have for tomorrow? and more importantly how much do we really care about it?
One of my chocolate loving friends has recently been working really hard to improve her fitness. At the start of her journey she didn't really have a goal in mind and her motivation ebbed and flowed. She then signed up for a half marathon and was running every morning determined to complete the race in a respectable time. Her biggest fear is being recorded in the results as 'DNF.' She told me that she had made plans to avoid falling back into bad habits over Christmas. "I am only allowing myself to have five chocolates per day. If I eat more than that, I have to run again." When I spoke to her last night, this rule has already been broken several times and catastrophically she now thinks that she might as well give up. In our wisdom we decided that the problem is that the chocolates have now become a reward for the exercise. She is no longer excited by her time coming down or the fact that she did 10k without stopping. She has also started to use exercise as a punishment for her wrong doings. She feels that she has failed and that she is no longer good enough or worthy enough to succeed. Put simply, she has changed her habit cycle and now she needs to reset her mind to change it back again. That's the problem with habits, they seem to take a long time to acquire and seconds to break. Luckily, she plans to get back on track after Christmas and she hopes that her new Christmas trainers will motivate her to move again.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Our brain would like to transform our lives into a series of automated behaviours or habits because it can then power down and become more efficient. However, we cannot exist in a constant state of habitual behaviour because we might miss something important like an attacker or a speeding car. Our brain, therefore, looks for repetitive cues which trigger safe routine and finally reward. Charles Duhigg calls this the habit loop. Over time, the cue and the reward become closely connected meaning that you begin to crave the reward. Unless you try to fight the habit, the cue-routine-reward response becomes automatic.
The good news is that if your habit is bad for you, you can break it into pieces and tweak either the cue, the routine or the reward and make changes. It isn't easy, but it is possible.
To form a new, more positive habit we need to commit to a series of daily actions. We need to focus on one habit at a time, commit for a minimum of thirty days, accept that obstacles will happen and make a plan for them and reward important milestones. Some people suggest that it is a good idea to make your new habit part of an old routine e.g. put your trainers in the car and jog to the shop and back on the way home from work instead of driving. Habits are also more likely to be formed if you work with others and are open and honest about your progress.
This morning I received an email from my gym telling me that I should sign up to their new exercise classes so that I could become a better version of myself. The advert promised that they would never tell me that I need to look a certain way to be happier and healthier. Instead I was guaranteed support from personal trainers who would help me to set realistic goals and would guide me to achieve them safely. Although, the intention was one of support, the gym gave me a clear message that my personal fitness success would otherwise be unlikely and that I would need to be monitored and spoon fed. I believed them, visualised my inevitable failure and deleted the email.
In schools, students and teachers are bombarded with a similar message. There is a need for constant target setting, tests of our ability and progress appraisals. It isn't really a surprise that as a school community we constantly doubt our personal value and worth and we do not always feel trusted to do our job. We are in the habit of working towards the next examination, data gathering exercise or book scrutiny. Our reward is our learners' results and satisfaction or an acknowledgement of our hard work from those we respect. If we are not up to standard, we feel that we have failed and in extreme cases that we should leave the profession. When the reward component of our working habit loop depends on the success or opinion of others, this dramatic reaction is not so difficult to understand.
Our pupils are unquestionably in the habit of learning and achieving, but the sad thing is that they are probably learning for learning's sake and not because they are genuinely interested or feel that the new knowledge will make a difference in their lives. We ask our pupils to set improvement targets but how often do we ask them to connect their current learning to their career plan? Do we offer our pupils relevant mentors or brain storming buddies like my gym was prepared to offer me? Do we ever teach our pupils how personal and lifelong learning can become part of their daily routine? Do our pupils even know what the habits of effective learners in our classroom look like?
Next year I will be setting a few resolutions for myself. Some of them are too personal to share, but one of them will be to look for ways to develop positive learning habits such as wider research and independent study in my classroom and in my year group. I will know that I have succeeded when at least one or two more pupils excitedly ask to share their new knowledge and experiences with us all.
Thanks for reading