Habits everywhere:  Do you brush your teeth? Of course you do. Do you think about it though? I am sure the answer here is ‘No’. Brushing our teeth is something we do no matter what, something that does take a few minutes (esp if you do it regularly – or if you happen to have an unusually large number of teeth 🙂 ) but which is nevertheless completely effortless. It is a habit. Apparently, a great part of our everyday lives – more than 40% – consists of such routines. Would it not be great if we could help our students establish habits which would actually help them improve their English? Can you imagine how much progress our students would make if they did these things on a daily basis?

EL Learning Habits: This article is about how we can help create habits. Naturally, as teachers we would like our learners to form habits which help them improve their English. Not all strategies are equally good candidates however. In the text below I have included five simple things any learner can try to do habitually. For more ideas on Learning Strategies, click here.

How to form a habit: Charles Duhigg has studied habits extensively and his excellent book ‘The Power of Habit’ (Duhigg 2012) offers great insights into the nature of these routines and on how we can make use of them. Here are some of them:

The habit cycle: A habit consists of three parts: the cue, the routine and the reward. The cue is what ‘presses the button’ for us to perform a particular behaviour; the routine is the behaviour itself; the reward is what we get out of this. This is usually a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure or release or excitement – depending on the nature of the routine. For instance, after my morning coffee, I sit down in front of my computer and solve 3-4 chess puzzles. The cue is the coffee; the routine is the puzzles and the reward is the little shots of dopamine I get every time I successfully solve one. (To watch a 2-min clip on this, click here).

Why is the cue important? The cue is what triggers our behaviour. It can be an event (the alarm going off) or a place we find ourselves in (the staffroom) or an action that we perform (eating). Each of these can trigger a habit – e.g. going for a 10 minute jog (after the alarm), or making a coffee (upon entering the staffoom) or brushing our teeth (after eating). The cue is very important if we want to establish a constructive habit because ideally we want to engage in this behaviour without thinking (on the importance of action triggers see Heath & Heath 2011 – p. 209). The presence of the cue helps make things automatic.

Why is the reward important? Well, it is true of course that ‘virtue is its own reward’ – going for a run triggers the release of endorphins and brushing your teeth leaves your mouth feeling fresh. However, in the initial stages of habit formation we need to give ourselves an additional incentive – just as some parents do when teaching their kids dental hygiene. It is a good thing if that reward is something concrete. For instance, I always found it hard to transfer notes from the books I read to Excel sheets on my computer. Now I have decided to make at least 10 entries every morning. And then I reward myself with a quick game of online chess. It works like a charm.

Do we really need rewards? Some people feel that once they have performed the routine, they do not need the reward; this is a mistake. It is true the reward will not help them on that day, but it will link the routine with a pleasurable feeling; this will make it more likely they will stick to their habit on days when their motivation might flag. Others might feel that the risk here is that we might detract from the intrinsic pleasure of the routine if we come to expect a reward at the end. This is a valid concern generally, but it does not apply here; the reward is not for the action we perform – we reward ourselves for sticking to a habit we want to form! (For an amazing 3-minute story about the power of rewarding ourselves, click here).

What about the routine? This is a crucial point: in establishing a habit it is vital that we start small. As small as possible. Many people go wrong here; in their desire to see quick progress they set themselves impossible tasks. It is very hard to go from doing no exercise at all to jogging 20 min a day; it is much easier to tell yourself that you are going to go down the stairs rather than use the lift, or walk to the next bus stop rather than to the one closest to where you live. What matters initially is that we stick to the habit; once we have done so we can then go on to do more and more. (To watch a 70-second clip on this, click here).

How should I plan my habit? Research shows that you are much more likely to stick to your habit if you plan meticulously in advance. You need to be clear about details. For instance, let us say you decide to go jogging every morning. You need to decide in advance: i) What clothes are you going to wear? (T-shirt, short, sneakers)  ii) Where are you going to jog? (round the block)  iii ) How long are you going to jog for? (5 min). These ‘implementation intentions’ are crucial (see also Halpern 2016 – p. 144);  i) they send a message to yourself that you mean business and  ii) they make it far easier to execute your plan when the time comes. (To watch a 40-second clip on this, click here).

Does it matter if I miss a day?: In establishing a habit, consistency is key. Missing your routine for a day does not matter so much; missing two days in a row however can be serious. Missing it for three days can be disastrous. Research shows that the chances of sticking to your habit go down by 5% in the first case, but then the figure jumps to 55% in the case of two days and more than 90% if you fail to follow your programme three days running. (To watch a 30-second clip on this, click here).

How can I reduce the risk of giving up? An excellent way of making sure we stick to our habit is to make contingency plans. What happens if for whatever reason I cannot go jogging for 5 minutes because it is pouring with rain outside? No problems: we can have a Plan B that we can fall back on. In this case, we could say that instead of jogging, we could use the skipping-rope for 3 minutes, or, if we cannot do that, perhaps do 3 sets of sit-ups and 3 sets of push-ups. It does not matter if the amount of exercise we get is the same; what matters is that we are sending a signal to ourselves that we are serious about our commitment. (To watch a 70-second clip on this, click here).

How long does it take to consolidate a habit? According to some research, it takes about 66 days. This may sound a lot, but remember that this initial small investment of consistent effort (as the routine is small initially) should pay huge dividends over the following months and even years. With habits one should think long-term. Once we are pretty confident that the habit has been established, we can then increase the routine – e.g. from 5 minutes of jogging to 10 minutes plus some push-ups. The possibilities are endless. (To watch an 1-min clip on this, click here).

[OK – now you have read all this, you may want to watch this short video (from which most of the others were taken). It offers a nice summary of all the above].

Last Words – Why habits? There are two reasons why I believe the creation of learning habits is very promising:  i) once a habit is formed, it requires almost no will-power to keep it up. You simply do things on auto-pilot. This means that for a relatively small initial investment of effort, the yields over large periods of time can be huge;  ii) the habit changes your self-perception. You start thinking of yourself differently – you give yourself a new identity (‘I am an exerciser’ / ‘I am a serious learner of English’ / ‘I am a dieter’). The big idea is that this changed self-image can then trigger additional changes leading to a virtuous circle. Here is a 60-second clip in which Brian Wansik with a fantastic example. Enjoy.  🙂

* To go to a site with logic and lateral thinking puzzles, click here.

** To see an example of such a song click here.




Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit. London: Random House Books

Halpern, D. (2016) Inside the Nudge Unit. London: WH Allen

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2011) Switch. London: Random House

YouTube – ‘The Power of Habit’ [Animation]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxy8dDSHHaw

YouTube – ‘How to Build Habits and Execute Effortlessly’ [Animation]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LdhudFvJuE&t=69s

YouTube – Dan Ariely ‘The Secret to Kicking Procrastination: Reward Yourself’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbEa1P4sqd8

YouTube – Brian Wansink ‘From Mindless Eating to Mindlessly Eating Well’ TEDx: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ogsmh_czeY&t=4s