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  • Writer's pictureClare Lloyd

The Power of Habit

Welcome back to teaching for 2023. It has been quite a while since I wrote a blog. Life has been quite up and down over the last few years and there have been times of intense work as well as coming to terms with the loss of the wonderful Greg Barker.

This summer I was contemplating what I wanted to achieve this academic year and I came across a fantastic book that I want to share with you. I have already used this with my students to great effect and I think you and your students will find it valuable too. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a book that explores the science behind forming habits and considers the power of habit in our personal lives, in society and business. The reason I decided to read it was because I was interested in the idea that I might be able to change or develop some of my own habits into new and more positive ones. At the end of this book, Duhigg explores that very question and I have been experimenting with the strategies he proposes.

The first reason I decided to share this book with my students was because I thought it might help with AO2 analysis and evaluation in several different areas of the A level specification. It becomes clear early on, that Duhigg is aware of Aristotle’s attitude to Virtue and habit. There is significant overlap between the content of this book and Aristotle’s Virtue Theory. But as I read on, I saw Max Stirner’s Ethical Egoism echoed in the pages, then Pavlov, Satre and Rogers along with the implications for Free will and Determinism. As I went on, I saw analysis of the Christianity paper and the social developments in religious thought as Duhigg explores the work of evangelists. There are links to psychology and sociology of religion, and wider implications about the relationship between faith and reason.

Duhigg shows in the most positive and the most terrifying ways, that habit is formed of three parts that he calls the habit loop.

1. Cue – the prompt that tells you to act

2. Behaviour – the action you take

3. Reward – the positive thing you get when you have performed an action

Duhigg gives many examples, but he particularly cites the use of alcohol and of gambling in people struggling with addiction. The cue here may be the feeling of depression, exhaustion or loneliness. The behaviour is the act of drinking of gambling and the reward is the relaxation or the buzz that takes someone’s mind away from the negative feelings. Yet, we know in these cases, the habits that are formed are ultimately destructive. For Aristotle, forming good habits starts in childhood. We teach children virtuous characteristics of courage and friendliness. They are cued by a situation they face; they behave in courageous or friendly ways and are rewarded with praise. Eventually, they do not even need to think about it, because the habit is so ingrained that it is performed automatically. Just like the experienced drinker who automatically reaches for the next drink without thinking or the gambler who places their next bet without registering what they are doing! The difference is that the virtuous habits are constructive.

Aristotle gives the example of the harpist of course. Musicians of great excellence allow their fingers to play the notes without really registering what they are doing because they are so well practiced that they can play them without thought. They may not even look at their hands, because their fingers know where to go without them consciously thinking about it. The act of playing is habitual. [Image: Sophia Barker @the_seaside_harpist]

All this suggests that once ourhabits are formed, our behaviour is fixed. Pavlov’s experiments with dogs suggest that their salivation occurred without any involvement of the conscious mind and this implies that habitual behaviour controls us regardless of our will. But of course, Sartre argued that believing our behaviour is fixed in this way is bad faith, and Rogers believed that with the right upbringing, we could have freedom to act. Duhigg argues that once our habits are formed, they do control us, but at any time we have the freedom to choose to develop new habits and remove old ones if we know how. He goes as far as to argue that once we know this information, it is our responsibility to make the effort to change. We can identify our cue and reward but then substitute our old behaviour for a new one. This takes practice and careful planning, it is not instant. It also takes faith! This is something that William James touched upon when he was dealing with his own depression and sense of worthlessness. He understood that change required The Will to Believe that things could improve. And similarly, we must believe that we can change our habits if we are to be successful.

Duhigg gives the example of Micheal Phelps whose trainer had him imagine all the things that could go wrong in a swim. For instance, a common problem for swimmers is goggles failing. The rules prevent you from adjusting your goggles during a race and this would cost valuable seconds anyway. Phelps had to practice swimming without goggles or in the dark. He had to count the number of strokes it took him to do a length so that he knew exactly when he would need to turn. He had to imagine his goggles failing and then how he would get to the end of the race without them. He was tasked with playing a video in his head, over and over, of him completing his race without goggles. All this meant, that when in one of his Olympic races, his goggles did fail, he knew exactly what to do to finish because it was already an automatic habit for him. He won, gained a PB and a gold medal.

This is all excellent material for the Ethics course but the second reason that I shared this book with my students is because it gave them a chance to evaluate their study habits. The most successful students I teach have good study habits. They know exactly how to learn, and they have a clear routine for learning. Since teaching them about this book, I have had several students come to me and say how much this has changed their work routines already. We identified that they needed a cue to study. Some were getting home and relaxing at the end of the day but were not motivated to then get on with some homework. I encouraged them to download apps like Streak or To Do on their phones.

They used the app to set up reminders to watch one of my videos in advance of the next day’s lesson and to fill in a Cornell Note making sheet. The phone sends an audible tone at the time of day they had set it to remind them to do their prep. When they have performed the action, they check it off on the app and it gives them an audible ‘bing’ reward and a tick or a green circle to show they have done it. They can see their streaks of how many days that they have done prep work for and see a sense of achieve meant that they have worked so hard. Several students have said that they have felt a big difference in their work habits already. I had them fill in a sheet where they envisaged the problems they would face or the obstacles that would prevent them from completing the work. They then made plans for what they would do when they faced that obstacle and a week later, they revisited the sheet to analyse how they had got on and what they needed to change to be more successful next week.

So, this book has already changed several of my students lives. There are students who were failing the course or were too anxious to speak in lessons last year. Now they are arguing in the discussions and confident that they know what is going on because they have done their prep every day. They have moved from failing the course because their essays were lacking in depth, to passing because their new habits are constructive. When we get to free will and determinism, they have some first hand experience to help them analyse whether we are free or determined beings. They have even had a chance to think about the role of faith - they predict what might go wrong but they trust that they can overcome these problems because they plan for it and then they practice so that when they face an obstacle, getting around it is automatic.

I have attached some of the resources that I created for my class on this issue in case you find this book as inspirational as I did.

The Power of Habit Resources
Download ZIP • 4.74MB

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