You are your habits

Is your child struggling to adopt the habits of a ‘good student'? Maybe they just don't seem to have the self-discipline or will power to pack their bag every night, write down their homework so they actually know what they're supposed to be doing or consistently incorporate revision into their lives.

Well, last weekend, I was scrolling through Facebook when something a friend had shared with me jumped out at me. And, I believe it answers the reason why will power and self-discipline never lead to consistent habits.

Keep reading for the rest of this blog post, or use the podcast player above to listen to an audio version. You can also listen via Apple podcasts or Amazon music.

Your habits reflect your identity

The thing that I saw on Facebook was a quotation from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. It read:

Over the long run, however, the real reason you fail to stick with habits is that your self-image gets in the way. This is why you can't get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.

It had such an impact on me that I immediately downloaded the book onto my Kindle and sat for two hours reading it.

This passage struck me so hard because I've always had trouble with sticking to healthy eating habits. I'm a very disciplined person but throughout my life, I've found it really difficult to resist a piece of cake, and often go out of my way to find one.

In the instant that I read that quotation, I suddenly realised why I'd always found it so hard to eat healthily. It's because I've never self-identified as a ‘healthy' or ‘slim' person. If I just change my thinking around and ask myself whether eating that piece of cake is something that a healthy person would do, it will put the breaks on and help me make better choices.

What's this got to do with GCSE and A-Level students?

It also struck me, at that moment, that a lot of the difficulties I see with GCSE and A-Level students adopting good study habits could come down to the fact that they don't self-identify as ‘good students'. Because, in their minds, if they don't have this identity, taking on the habits associated with this identity isn't congruent – they're basically experiencing cognitive dissonance where their psychological conception of themselves clashes with the actions they are taking. The easiest way to resolve the dissonance is to stop taking the actions that don't fit their self-defined personality.

My student identity

When I started at secondary school, I desperately wanted to be a ‘good student' who consistently achieved the highest marks in the class. I've also always been one of those people who is very keen to follow the rules.

I made two decisions:

  • I was always going to hand my homework in on time
  • I was never going to get a detention

My eleven-year-old brain believed that sticking to these two things would take me a very long way to being a ‘good student'.

Alternative teenage identities

When students come to me who are disengaged from their studies and don't have an apparent motivation to do their homework and hand it in on time, get started with their revision or get organised they are basically young people who don't see themselves as someone who wants to be, or can be, academically successful.

Learning differences making academic success harder

This can be for numerous reasons e.g. they've really struggled through school because of a learning difficulty. One young man who was a member of The Extraordinaries Club stands out to me as an example. He had ADHD and found organisation incredibly challenging. His school had a very strict sanctions system so that if he even forgot his pen he was given a detention and he really struggled to do homework and hand it in on time.

Basically, this young man had been conditioned into believing that he was academically failing and he wasn't being given anything to help him believe that he could succeed, so he was turned off school completely.

By putting in systems (systems are really habits sequenced one after another) he was able to be more organised, get fewer detentions and actually start to enjoy school which made him see himself differently.

X-box boys

There's a whole category of students who come to work with me inside The Extraordinaries Club who I affectionately think of as ‘X-box boys'. These are teenagers who's every spare thought is with their games console and for whom homework is simply an annoying distraction from their reason for living: gaming.

These students see themselves as gamers. It's the identity they've adopted for themselves.

If we're going to help them to become better students, and reach their academic potential, we need to help them to see their identities differently so that homework and revision is no longer an annoying distraction from their reason for being alive, but becomes something that fits with the way they see themselves.

Your actions flow from your identity

It is totally possible to change how you see yourself. I used to believe that physical activity wasn't for me, but I've learned to enjoy exercise and movement and it is now firmly part of who I am, doing something active every single day.

For the students that I work with, we need to do is help them to shift their identity and ask themselves:

“What would a good student do?”

A bit like I'm now asking myself:

“What would a healthy person do?”

Do you need more help with this?

In The Extraordinaries Club, we have a module on habits, as well as modules or organisation, time management, motivation, mindset and revision, all of which help students to review their identities in relation to their schoolwork and create behaviours that fit those identities. Students and parents get further support with this on the weekly coaching calls.

Click here to find out more about what The Extraordinaries Club has to offer.

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