Creating New Habits for Learning

Original Editor - Robin Tacchetti Top Contributors - Robin Tacchetti, Jess Bell and Kim Jackson

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Habits are routine, automatic behaviours that are repeated regularly. They are a learned experience and are part of an individual's regular tendency or practice.[1] They operate in the background, with some studies suggesting that up to 40% of our daily choices are made unconsciously.[2]

A habit forms when we repeat behaviours in a stable context. This "reinforces a mental context-behaviour association" - i.e. the context triggers an impulse to perform the habitual behaviour. During habitual behaviours, we might not be aware of the behaviour, have a specific intention to perform the behaviour or make a cognitive effort during the behaviour. Habit formation reduces the demand on our memory and attention, and habit regulates behaviour more than conscious intention.[3]

Habits are very difficult to give up as they occur as an automatic reaction to a particular situation.[1] Since habits have a behavioural component, there is a direct relationship with self-control. Those who have established good habits are generally better at self-control and are more likely to succeed in various aspects of their life. However, failures and problems can become habits as well.[1] It has been found that individuals who are less able to control their behaviours tend to revert to effortless, habitual behaviours, which are frequently referred to as bad habits.[4]

Goals vs. Habits[edit | edit source]

Many people mistake goals and habits as interchangeable entities. However, there are significant differences:[2]

  • goals are more likely to be driven by external motivators, while habits are automatic
  • goals are usually big and important, while habits feel insignificant and small
  • goals have an endpoint, and habits continue throughout life
  • habits may be longer in duration than long-term goals
  • when you focus on goals and achieve them, you may not continue with the work it initially took to accomplish the goal; conversely, small daily habits compound over time, and you may end up proceeding further than your original intent

Goals are a desired future state coupled with activities that will encourage the attainment of that outcome. "Goals are usually things we want but have difficulty achieving even when we know they are achievable." When pursuing a goal, an individual will do something differently than before.[5] Goal-directed activities are quickly acquired and modulated by their outcome.[1]

On the other hand, habits rely on repeated experiences that form with practice and develop gradually. Habits may act on goals or be completely independent of current goals; habits are not goal-dependent.[6] A goal may originally trigger a habit. However, eventually, that goal becomes less necessary, and the habit becomes automatic. Habitual actions are reflexive in nature, instigated by previous stimuli versus consequences. Goal-directed behaviours practised on a routine basis can form habits.[1]

Michael Rowe[2] provided the following chart to highlight the differences between goals and habits. It was adapted from Clear, J. Atomic habits: an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin: Avery. 2018.

Table 1. Goals vs habits.
Goals Habits

"I want to pass my final exams"


"I want to review my notes today"


"I want to be better at anatomy"


"I want to describe the intraarticular surface of the tibifemoral joint without referring to my notes"

Focus on product (end point)

"I want to pass my final exams"

Focus on process (continuous)

"I want to be a lifelong learner"

External factors

"I don't get along with my lecturer"

Internal factors

"I am in control of my habits"


Habit Formation[edit | edit source]

Habit formation is the process of new behaviours becoming automatic.[1] Behaviour is more likely to become habitual (habit formation) when it is consistently and frequently performed in the same context. Therefore, when an individual is in a context that is associated with a specific behaviour, this context will automatically prompt the associated behaviour. This behaviour will be effortless when the habit is formed.

The amount of effort required to form a habit is variable. Some individuals can create new habits in just 18 days, while others may need 6 months. With habit formation, habit strength increases steeply at first and then begins to level off. Habit formation tends to be stronger with the following factors:[4]

  • frequency and consistency of desired behaviour
  • rewarding nature of the behaviour
  • comfortable environment
    • no obstacles or threats
  • easier behaviours
    • rather than difficult or complex behaviours
  • self-control
    • "The initiation of such new behavior, as well as the inhibition of acting upon short-term temptations is likely to require effortful self-control, especially in the early stages of habit formation"[4]

Habit Classification[edit | edit source]

Habits can be classified into three categories:[1]

  1. motor habits: an individual's muscular activities
    • walking, running, sitting, standing, particular postures
  2. intellectual/cognitive habit: psychological process
    • logical thinking, observation, reasoning
  3. character habit: various inner traits
    • time management, hardworking, trusting others
    • also referred to as emotional habits, as they express feelings and emotions[1]

Habit Loop[edit | edit source]

We can use a process called the habit loop to create new habits. This process has three key steps:[2][1][7]

  1. reminder or cueing environment (place, time, people, or behavioural)
  2. routine (repetitive pattern of activities)
  3. reward or harmony (an outcome of activating the habit)

Reminder / Cueing Environment[edit | edit source]

Habits are initiated by the cueing environment or the reminder. The cueing environment (place, people, time, etc.) can serve as the trigger for automatic behaviour or habit formation. "When a habit is triggered, people have an automatic urge to do the action"[1] - this habit may be performed unconsciously. A behaviour can be so ingrained that you may forget you even did it (e.g. brushing your teeth in the morning).[1]

Five primary ways a new habit can be triggered:[8]

  1. Time: time-based cues can help keep individuals in a routine and stick to a habit
  2. Location: often habits are responses to our environment or location
  3. Preceding event: many habits are related to something that happened previously in an individual's life
  4. Emotional state: paying attention to your emotional state helps build better habits
  5. Other people: surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself[8]

Two types of cueing can take place:

  1. direct cueing: repeated association between environment and routine
    • providing a constant environment
    • e.g. reading in the same room at the same time[1]
  2. motivated cueing: rewarding experiences that occurred in the past
    • an individual who has had previous successful experiences will be motivated to perform the same behaviour[1]

Routine[edit | edit source]

Routine refers to the set of actions we take as part of building the habit.[2] They are the actions that we most frequently repeat. Because they are repeated so often, these behavioural patterns become "etched" into our neural pathways.[1] New response mechanisms can be formed through repetition and the practice of novel behaviours. Forming a new habit is easier when the behaviour is simple rather than complex. The more complex a task, the more repetitions required to form a habit.[1]

Harmony / Reward[edit | edit source]

Harmony or reward is the third component of the habit loop. Harmony represents an individual's inner feeling of peace. As repetitive behaviour is performed, people feel they receive inner rewards and their needs are fulfilled. Activating this behaviour fills them with a sense of peacefulness about the surrounding environment. Consequently, this experience makes an individual want to repeat the behaviour, thus creating a positive feedback loop.[1]

"A good rule of thumb is that the rewards for good habits are usually received in the future, but the costs are felt today."[2]

Interest and Habit[edit | edit source]

Interest and habit are directly related and can positively reinforce each other.[1]

  1. Situational interest:
    • may or may not last over time
    • focused attention
    • "affective reaction triggered in the moment by environmental stimuli"[1]
  2. Individual interest:
    • individuals reengage in a specific activity over time
    • there is an expectation of positive feelings because of an individual's past experiences
    • there is an "internal drive" to look for opportunities to continue to reengage in the stimulus
    • an individual performs the activity for pleasure like they would a hobby[1]

Habit Stacking[edit | edit source]

Habit stacking refers to the concept of building a new habit/behaviour on top of an established habit. Instead of pairing a new habit with a particular time or location, a new habit is paired with a current habit. This new habit is more likely to stick because it is linked to a current pattern and behaviour that is already built into your brain. Habit stacking can be as large as you like as you can link many small habits together.[9]

Habits and Learning[edit | edit source]

Learning is a skill, and is something that everyone can improve.[2] Excellent performance in school or mastery of a skill is attained through good study habits. Conversely, poor study habits can cause impediments to learning and achievement, ultimately leading to failure.[1] Creating new habits, and breaking bad ones, can immediately change the context in which we learn. Setting up new routines based on small incremental changes to habitual behaviours can create the conditions to enhance learning over time.[2]

Good habits in the classroom, which lead to student achievement, have a cumulative effect on future success. Students with good habits continue to increase their learning gains later in life, while students with poor habits are less able to catch up.[1] Habits are force multipliers, enabling learners to achieve more than expected, given their starting point.[2]

  • When we experience positive feelings after a routine activity, this helps us to create a habit. This habit can eventually become a hobby.
  • Learners will want to continue to pursue this activity whenever they can. When learners deepen their interest from situational to individual interest, they are more likely to build a habit. Therefore, interest development and habit formation are directly linked.[1]

It is important to recognise that habits precede outcomes. However, aiming for good outcomes does not necessarily lead to them. Developing good habits is far more likely to lead to good outcomes.[2]

** How learners perform in an early assessment strongly predicts their performance later in the course. Thus, it is important to use effective learning strategies from the beginning.[10]

Study Habits[edit | edit source]

Study habits are recognised as "the most important predictor of academic performance".[11] Study habits are different individual behaviours that combine skill and study method. Study habits encompass all activities that enhance the process of learning a topic, memorising material and solving problems. Everyone has different study habits.[11]

It has been found that good study habits include the following:[11]

  • daily study
  • studying in a quiet environment
  • turning off devices that distract from study (e.g. mobile phones)
  • taking regular breaks / rests
  • taking notes on important content
  • listening to soft music
  • focusing on concepts that are difficult
  • adapting study to suit your learning style

Poor study habits include:[11]

  • studying in appropriate environments
  • listening to loud music
  • having television on
  • procrastination[11]

Positive Learning Environments[edit | edit source]

Using "scheduled routines" to develop habits in learning environments can help shift students from situational interest to individual interest.

Scheduled routines enable learners to participate in activities they have been situationally interested in. This can lead to individual interest and is more likely to result in habit.[1]

Chen et al.[1] list four features necessary to create interest-driven habit formation in the learning environment:

  1. "determine those habits that contribute to interest-driven creation
  2. identify current and desired habits of learners
  3. determine which learning habits of learners require additional support
  4. develop an instructional design framework that fosters the habit of interest-driven creation"[1]

Educators' Guide to Forming Good Habits in Learners[edit | edit source]

  • Set a manageable pace[1]
    • focus on one or two behaviour changes at a time
    • begin with simple behaviours or activities before progressing to more complex activities
  • Create a cueing environment[1]
    • provide a cueing environment from the start of learning
      • have learners engage in a task at specific times for fixed periods
    • clarify the goal of the learning activity
      • when students understand the goal, they can focus on learning
        • study will be goal-directed, and the learning activity will eventually become habitual
    • educators can act as role models
      • learners may unconsciously mimic the educator's behaviours and routines
    • utilise resources and situational opportunities as cognitive and affective support[1]
      • situational resources can become triggers in a cueing environment
        • e.g. immersive learning keeps learners engaged in actions where they can be part of collaborative inquiry activities
          • helps learners to monitor the collection of ideas and knowledge of the group and contribute ideas to the community
    • provide relevant triggers using design tools and platforms
      • can use emerging technologies
  • Encourage students to engage in the desired behaviour on a regular basis[1]
    • students must practise a new habit regularly until it becomes routine
    • avoid interruptions or postponement as they can weaken habit formation
  • Reinforce a learner's satisfaction[1]
    • if a new behaviour provides a sense of satisfaction, learners are more likely to achieve behavioural change
      • high satisfaction of the habit loop increases the likelihood of habit formation
      • low satisfaction reduces the likelihood of habit formation
    • student satisfication requires as many successful learning experiences as possible
      • can be achieved through cognitive and affective scaffolding
        • cognitive scaffording helps leaners finish difficult learning tasks
          • e.g. questioning, modelling, explaining, providing hints, coaching and positive feedback
        • affective scaffolding helps learners finish tasks and reduces the risk of negative emotions (e.g. anonymity/hiding information)
        • additional assistance should be provided to low-ability students so they can acquire satisfaction in the habit loop as well
  • Shift learning to be interest-driven[1]
    • students who are interested concentrate more and put more effort in
    • they spend more time on the activity and have more enjoyment

Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 1.30 Chen W, Chan TW, Wong LH, Looi CK, Liao CC, Cheng HN, Wong SL, Mason J, So HJ, Murthy S, Gu X. IDC theory: habit and the habit loop. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning. 2020 Dec;15(1):1-9.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Rowe M. How to Create New Habits for Learning Course. Plus, 2023.
  3. Gardner B, Sheals K, Wardle J, McGowan L. Putting habit into practice, and practice into habit: a process evaluation and exploration of the acceptability of a habit-based dietary behaviour change intervention. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2014 Dec;11:1-3.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Van der Weiden A, Benjamins J, Gillebaart M, Ybema JF, De Ridder D. How to form good habits? A longitudinal field study on the role of self-control in habit formation. Frontiers in Psychology. 2020 Mar 27;11:560.
  5. Berkman ET. The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. 2018 Mar;70(1):28.
  6. Wood W, Mazar A, Neal DT. Habits and goals in human behavior: Separate but interacting systems. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2022 Mar;17(2):590-605.
  7. NPR (2012). How you can harness the power of habit.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Clear, J. The 5 Triggers that Make New Habits Stick
  9. Clear J. How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones”. Disponible en: jamesclear. com. 2020.
  10. Brown-Kramer CR. Improving students’ study habits and course performance with a “learning how to learn” assignment. Teaching of Psychology. 2021 Jan;48(1):48-54.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Jafari H, Aghaei A, Khatony A. Relationship between study habits and academic achievement in students of medical sciences in Kermanshah-Iran. Advances in Medical Education and Practice. 2019 Aug 15:637-43.