When I was a kid, habits were usually behaviors you needed to break. In second grade, during the Great American Smoke Out, I very nervously but resolutely flushed my dad’s Lucky Strikes down the toilet.

He was not happy. (He did quit, eventually. But it definitely was not that day).

Today, we talk and think a lot about habits but not always as something we need to stop. Often, they are behaviors we want to start. They are behaviors that will improve our outlook, our life, our performance, our relationships, our work, our leadership: I’d like to drink more water, drink less coffee, exercise more often, wake a bit earlier, listen more talk less, provide faster feedback, read every night. There are tips and tricks and timelines for forming good habits and keeping them but usually the challenges are: too much or not often enough, perfectly or not at all. In other words, we try to do too much too quickly or we don’t do a few things often enough. We aim to do it perfectly right away or we don’t do it at all.

I say start somewhere, start small.

When we focus exhaustively and obsessively on the big goal, that seemingly far-off place on the horizon, we fail to appreciate the small steps it takes to reach it.  And those small steps? Well, they are the behaviors that we do repeatedly and routinely (not always perfectly, that’s okay) that turn into habits that inch us a bit closer to that suddenly not-so-far-off place.

Let’s apply it to, oh I don’t know, education. More specifically, improving student learning (the big goal). Rather than be daunted by the magnitude of what it requires to improve student learning (I know, my heart kind of palpitated at the parallel and perpendicular and voluminous categories and components involved) just take a second to think about one area, one thing that you would like to improve right now.  

Want to improve communication with Leadership Team members in between meetings? Send out a weekly email to members (for example). It could just be a how's it going email but it could also share a piece of good news (a student that showed up to school every day that week, a parent who called to thank a teacher for their extra help) or a question you’d like to discuss at the next meeting, maybe a solution to a challenge you’d like the team to work on. You don’t have to have it all figured out, you just have to start it. Start somewhere, start small.

Now that you’ve come up with your one thing (it can be more than one thing just don’t try to do too many things at once and risk doing nothing) be very very very consistent.

Yes, the triple very’s matter. A part from the research that suggests consistency is key to forming habits (66 days by the way, up from long-held 21 days) consistency is also key to convincing yourself and other people that your habit is here to stay—and that it’s a good one.

I am no brain expert, but when I’m forming new habits, I think of a new pathway that needs to form in my brain.  Kind of like what happens when I watch my children sled after a new snow: the sled doesn’t quite work until the path is well worn, after about the 15th slide down (by which time it's also more grass than snow in Maryland). It’s not pretty or even all that fun at first, but you keep showing up, keep trudging through, and keep climbing back up. The rewards will come. Start somewhere, start small and be very very very consistent.

Related to the consistency piece but deserving of its own bold-face type is schedule it.

Scheduling the behavior does a couple of things: 1) it reminds you to do it even if a food fight breaks out in the cafeteria (I hope not, but you get the point) and 2) it forms the association that your brain needs to do it automatically.  

Pick a time and a place to do your habit, schedule it (set an alarm even) and make it happen.

In Summary:

  1. Don't flush your father's cigarettes down the toilet. Probably won't be the motivation he needs (or appreciates) to quit.
  2. Start somewhere, start small. You’ve been thinking about something you’d like to do or try or improve. Figure out what you CAN do, in a small way, now. Not perfectly, just consistently. Then:
  3. Be consistent. Commit to doing that thing as often as it requires (hourly, daily, weekly). You need the consistency, your brain needs the consistency, and so do those who will be impacted by it.
  4. Schedule it. Create the cue that will remind you to do this at the same time every time. Make it a priority and it will turn into a victory.

The Indicators of Effective Practice used in Indistar provide a list of practices (we could even argue HABITS) that will improve our leading, our teaching, and our students’ learning if we do them consistently, routinely, and yes, habitually. If you aren’t sure where to start, start there. Pick a practice from that list that you’d like to do better. That is your somewhere. Then, go smaller if needed. What one small thing can you do in support of that larger practice? Before you know it, there you will be.

Call to Action

Which habit (or habits) are essential to your work or your life? Looking to form a habit? What is it? Use the comment function below to share your reactions, ask your questions, share your habits, even start them.

Also, is starting a weekly blog a habit you are just dying to form? We would love to help. Ask me how you can get started with your very own blog space on IndistarConnect. 

Additional Reading:

http://www.fastcompany.com/3037926/an-essential-guide-of-habits-that-foster-productivity-and-focus

http://www.fastcompany.com/3024648/bottom-line/why-successful-habits-are-about-structure-not-effort

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