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Building Better Habits at Home

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

(Psst... for a recording of our live webinar on habit-building for asynchronous learners, click here!)

So, school is back in session and it’s going to be totally asynchronous for a while. This year isn’t going exactly as planned, but that doesn’t mean all is lost! Here are some tips on how to make the school year work for you.

Although some students are feeling less stressed while learning remotely, there are some new challenges to be overcome this year. First and foremost, there will be a lot more independence in your school day. Now that you aren’t in the cocoon of structure that school provides or under the supervision of teachers and other school staff, there may be a temptation to put your school and homework off ‘ti

l the last minute, show up late to zoom meetings, or even not brush your teeth. It’s easy enough to slip into these bad habits.

However, flexible schedules and lack of structure in your days is a lot more like the experience students are thrown into at university, so it could be a great time to jump-start some good habits.

So, how would you rate your current habits?

  1. Yes, I need help.

No worries, you’ve come to the right place. Even people out of school struggled with the freedom and lack of structure that comes with working from home.

  1. TBH, no, my habits are already perfect.

Stick around! You should always strive to be 1% better every day!

Four Steps to Building Good Habits

To begin, let’s start with an overview of the core ideas of Atomic Habits by James Clear. If you find this article interesting, I highly recommend you read the book! Or listen to it on an audiobook. Listening to an audiobook gives your brain and eyes a chance to relax, which is key now that our various screens and devices are so integral to our days.

These are the four core steps essential to building good habits:

  1. Make It (the habit) Obvious

  2. Make It Attractive

  3. Make It Easy

  4. Make It Satisfying

Now that we know these steps, let’s learn more about why and how to use them to plan more effective school days.

1. Make It Obvious

The first step to having good habits is to state your intention in an obvious way, and write it down somewhere so you can refer back to it whenever you need to. Setting attainable goals is the foundation of building a lifelong habit. Your habits have to start out intentional in order for them to work. It may be tempting to overcommit, but it is best to start small and let your progress add up.

I recommend you write the habits you would like to build on a post-it note and stick them on your desk, planner, notebook, or computer. This way, you’ll always have a reminder staring back at you. Students have also reported good feedback using a productivity tracker from the App Store. However, if your phone is a distraction, don’t use an app to track your habits. If you have a hard time setting intentional habits, I recommend creating SMART goals.

Here are some good examples of the “Make It Obvious” rule that I would write down somewhere very visible:

Habit you want to build: “I will get all my homework done before 7 PM.”

Habit you want to build: “As soon as I am done with practice, I will start my homework”

Habit you want to build: “I will be done w

ith my final project 3 days before it is due so I can get feedback before I turn it in.”

Habit you want to build: “I will work 2 hours on my college apps every Wednesday and Friday”

Once you’ve picked a goal (or two), it’s time to set a plan into motion.

2. Make It Attractive

Making an academia-related habit attractive is more than just buying well-designed pens and notebooks. The word “attractive” here could be interchanged with “meaningful”. You have to ask yourself what deeply motivates you, and link the habit you’d like to build with that motivational tool.

Motivator: “I am motivated by friends”

How to use it: Scheduling time (either on zoom or socially distanced) with friends who are in your class and have to do the same work as you would be a meaningful way to reinforce your habit.

Motivator: “I am motivated by praise”

How to use it: Find a parent, mentor (like us at STL!), teacher or coach who is willing to hold you accountable to your task and who will motivate you and give you positive reinforcement when you have finished your habit.

Now that you have a way to find extrinsic motivation, let’s work on making this habit stick! We make our habits stick by making them easy.

3. Make It Easy

Reduce friction in your habit-forming whenever you can. The important trick here is finding a way to make your routine sustainable and excuse-free so there is nothing standing between you and your habit.

Part of making your habit easy is managing your time in a way that doesn’t lead to burnout. Research shows that our internal body rhythms are heavily tied to productivity. Take breaks when you need to, and make other small choices that will add up to your big goal.

These small choices should almost always include a clean workspace so you can minimize distractions, and a good night’s sleep. Whether you’re a night owl, early bird or “third-bird," humans are most logical in the morning and get more creative throughout the day.

One of the best things about asynchronous learning is that you

are able to plan your schedule to suit your internal rhythm a bit more, which will help your habit building. If you’re interested in how to take better breaks, and how your body works in cycles, read When by Daniel H. Pink.

Here’s some ways to make your habits easy:

Habit you want to build: “I want to be fully present and on time during my first online


How to Make It Easy: The night before, leave your school clothes out, set up your desk space and computer where you’ll need it for your first class, and make sure you’ve woken up and changed out of your pajamas and had a bite to eat at least 30 minutes before your first lecture. Making time to actually prepare for the day really will help you pay attention better and will help you be on time as well!

How to Make it DIFFICULT: Wake up five minutes before your first lecture, and don’t make breakfast until lunchtime. You’ll start the day groggy, confused, and hungry.

Habit you want to build: “I want to reduce eyestrain and overall stress of staring at a

screen all day.”

How to Make It Easy: Take notes in an actual notebook, print out practice sets, and buy or rent the paper copy of the textbook to follow along.

How to Make it DIFFICULT: Write all your notes on a super long google doc sheet and save them in randomly named folders on your drive.

Habit you want to build: “I want to finish my homework by 7PM.”

How to Make It Easy: Clear your desk and have only your laptop, charger, notebooks, textbooks and pencils out. That way, every time you pass your desk you’ll see your stuff waiting for you!

How to Make it DIFFICULT: Dig through your backpack and desk drawers to find your charger because your laptop is dead. Give up, and watch TikTok videos on your phone instead.

Organization goes a long way to “making it easy” to build a habit.

4. Make It Satisfying

The best part about creating a habit is rewarding yourself for it! Once your habit is complete, reward yourself immediately. Your brain will start

associating your habit with something that makes you happy, and you will become intrinsically motivated.

Habit you want to build: Finish my homework by 7 PM.

Make It Satisfying: Take the rest of the night off

Habit you want to build: “I want me and my group to work 2 hours per week for the next 3 weeks on our group project”

Make It Satisfying: On week 3, when you’ve completed your project, do something fun together, like getting a milkshake!

Stop the negative feedback loop

Recentering your intentions when you have made a mistake is as important as building the habit. When you miss a habit or make a mistake, forgive yourself and jump right back into it. This way, your brain won’t start a negative feedback loop or spiral into procrastination behaviors.

Having a growth mindset is important in the process of building habits. If you haven’t already, watch some TED talks on the growth mindset or read Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck to learn more about how to be kind to yourself as you grow.

Negative Feedback Loop: “I completely

did not finish my assignment on time, and now I’ve got to face the wrath of Mr. _____ tomorrow”

How to snap out of it: Don’t forget the feeling of sadne

ss you feel today, but also try to be more organized with your project next time. This is a great time to work on your communication skills. Explain to your teacher that you are working on your habits, and would like to get half credit, and explain your plan to get your work done on time next time.

What to do if you have repeatedly not kept a habit: Keep a journal of what is stopping you from building your intended habit. There’s no shame in starting the four step process over again, and rebuilding from there.

Final Thoughts

This year does present a few challenges, as all years do. However, it also presents an opportunity to learn skills you will always value. Finding ways to build good habits will serve you well in college and beyond, since you will always be expected and trusted to get work done independently.

I recommend you read When, The Gr

owth Mindset and Atomic Habits to learn lifelong skills. For some much abridged advice about building habits, also check out my webinar with Lily. Otherwise, feel free to reach out and schedule a habits and executive function session with me.

Happy habit building!

Click the image below to watch a recording of our live webinar, How to Hack Asynchronous Learning, an in-depth conversation about habit-building for virtual education.


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