Monday, October 1, 2012

Habit Forming

On this rainy Monday morning, a few musings and links regarding habits.

Several years ago, one of my last good ones in public school, I decided that whatever I taught I would teach through the lens of the 16 Habits of Mind. I would teach them directly, briefly, then ask all of the kids to make connections with everything we did. It became the language of the classroom. This was one of the best years I ever had teaching; kids made huge leaps in their achievement and, more importantly, intellectual habits. We were talking in terms of persistence, creativity and flexibility instead of meets or exceeds the standards. We did not once participate in test prep or even discuss the test, but my kids blew it out of the water, with 98% of them exceeding standards, and 30% of that 98% getting perfect scores on the sections for which I was responsible (reading, language arts and social studies). It was the year I earned the Master Teacher designation on my teaching certificate.

And all we did was change our habits.

Willam James offers three rules for forming new habits:

  1. The acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.
  2. Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right … It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.
  3. Seize the Very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you
    aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.

Joan Didion got into the act with her discussion of character as it relates to self-respect and habit:

[C]haracter — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.


[S]elf-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.

So self-respect goes hand-in-hand with discipline and character. Perhaps there are parts of character that are innate, but others can be strengthened, deepened and improved.  Kids in that Habits of Mind year had success they had never experienced before, and they felt better, more confident, because of it. If changing a habit is as simple as changing your mind, and doing so improves everything about your life, what are you waiting for?

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