Building good habits (and breaking bad ones)

Many modern thinkers tell us that we are largely defined by our habits, both mental, physical and emotional. Some readers will nod at this thought, and others will feel threatened. Still, ‘who we are’ as the summation of ‘what we do’. The story we tell ourselves about ourselves isn’t really all that important, except to the extent in influences our actual behaviour.

Running with that premise, the best way to control the kind of person we are (and more importantly the kind we are likely to become) is to take control of our habits. These conscious and unconscious patterns affect almost everything that we do in life, so in changing them, we change ourselves.

The key, then, is changing habits for the better. Here are some strategies for doing just that, adapted from the work of James Clear. If you’d like to read more, we can recommend his book, Atomic Habits.


  • Link your habits directly to your identity.

When you think about ‘who you are’, don’t define yourself as someone who did X or accomplished Y or gained Z status. Think of yourself as ‘the kind of person who does A’ or ‘someone who regularly does B’. This can lead to all kinds of good reflective work, and can motivate you to establish positive habits.

Ask yourself, for example, “What kind of person does well in school?” You’ll come up with many answers, which might include “the kind who attends class regularly” or “the kind who completes their assignments early”. The key is to focus on action and identity, not outcome. The way to achieve something is to be the kind of person who does achieve it. The way to be that kind of person is to do the things that kind of person does.

Don’t say “I want this”. Rather, say “I am this”.

Every time you study properly, you are reinforcing your identity as ‘the kind of person who does well in school’. Every time you go to the gym you’re reinforcing your identity as ‘the kind of person who stays in shape’.

This is true even if you don’t achieve much on any particular day. You might only do two laps around the gym. You might only crack open the textbook and read through your vocabulary words for the week. But the point is you actually did the kind of thing that that kind of person does, and that reinforces your identity as ‘that kind of person’. Stay on that both and you will become that person. Stray too far from it, and you’ll become a different type of person entirely.

Once you truly change your identity, your behaviour will change as a consequence.


  • Create the right kind of environment for good habits to thrive

The kind of person you are now – and that includes both your physical and mental characteristics – is not the only thing that influences your habits. Your environment is also key. It is one of the defining characteristics of humans that they can change their environment to suit their purposes. If you adopt ‘changing your habits’ as your purpose, it is fairly easy to adapt your environment to that purpose.

Perhaps you’re the type of person who can lose hours and hours to a hobby, consuming entertainment or some other non-productive activity. If you wanted to change that in order to be more productive, simply ‘trying to not get sucked in’ is a losing proposition. ‘Willpower’ is never the answer – in fact many modern theorists don’t even believe in it as a concept.

Rather the answer is to change your environment to encourage better habits. Getting rid of entertainment subscription services might be one option. Moving your furniture around to favour the activities you’d rather be doing habitually instead of having all the chairs face the TV might also work.

There are thousands of ways to change an environment, and for every habit you’d like to break or form there are hundreds of ways to make our environment more or less conducive to the habit. Make changes. Make lots of changes.


As an example:

Set up a regular place to study which suits you. Ensure that you have everything you’ll need to study there, and enough space to spread out and get some real work done. Also make sure you have the right kind of lighting to avoid eye strain and fatigue, especially if you’ll be studying in the evening or at night.

You might need a totally quiet space, or one which offers a comforting level of background noise. If your home doesn’t offer the right kind of space, maybe you need to consider a local coffee shop or the library? A well-stocked backpack and good pair of noise-cancelling headphones can be a huge help in that kind of environment.

The core point is to be aware that your personality, your genetics, or any other factor which influences your habits is not the last word in the matter. You can overcome almost any kind of tendency by changing your surroundings in this way. We say ‘almost’ because there are some practical limitations. Do not attempt to become ‘the kind of person who doesn’t breathe air’ using this method, for example.


  • Look at the ways good and bad habits compound themselves.

A Clear has said, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” Just like compound interest, no one deposit feels like a game-changing event. Nonetheless, if you make that deposit every week for 10 years, and keep pouring the interest back into the account, the final amount will amaze you.

Habits are the same way. No one habit will change your life completely. But they synergise amazingly. A hundred tiny good habits can revolutionise your situation over time. A hundred bad ones can absolutely sink you.

Just remember that every good habit you develop contributes to the whole. Each pays off in unexpected ways, helping other habits have more effect and making each of your goals that tiny bit more achievable.


As an example:

Good study habits can include the following:

  • Avoiding large, heavy meals right before studying. Being over-full can make you sleepy or less alert. It is better to eat a smaller meal, and snack while studying to keep your energy levels up.
  • Get a little bit of light exercise before a study session. Even just a short walk or a stretch will better prepare your body and mind for study. Dancing is ideal.
  • Know your study priorities. Keep notes about all of your assignments, tests, quizzes etc., and especially their due dates. This will help you do the most urgent work first and study more efficiently. Remember – more notes are better notes.


Also, remember that your bad habits are all drains on the good. If good habits are compound interest on a savings account, bad habits are more like credit card debt. The longer you keep it, the more effort it will take to clear up. Just paying the monthly bills can become crippling in time.



  • Habits are the solutions to common problems. Only use the best solutions.

A habit is a kind of almost automatic behaviour. It is a way you respond to a common situation without really thinking about it. Some will say that that is evidence that humans are inherently lazy thinkers. Let us say, rather, that humans are instinctually efficient thinkers, and that ‘100% total mindfulness’ is really unachievable. Habits, then, are tools. They are tools that the brain applies to similar circumstances, seeking similar results. It is just what you do when presented with a familiar situation when you aren’t really paying attention.

Embrace your tendency to build habits, It is the end result of many millions of years of evolution, and not because it is an ineffective tool. Like any tool, though, it can be used poorly.


As an example:

Be consistent in your study habits. Make studying part of your everyday routine, and you won’t forget or schedule something else in your designated study time. Once this becomes routine, you can become excited about the learning process rather than dreading spending your time studying.

The way to use habits effectively is to make sure you are actually reinforcing the best possible habits. This only requires a little mindfulness, not the laser-like intensity of a Zen master. When you notice a habit, analyse it. Is it the best option? Is there something that seems like it would almost always give more desirable results? If so, do that. Just do it once, for now. See if it works out. That good decision will reinforce this new habit you just started building.


  • Avoid distractions.

Many things can be distracting. In fact, your smart phone is essentially a ‘distraction engine’, and millions of man-hours have been spent making sure it is as shiny, bright and immediately gratifying as possible at the current level of technology. Social media is the same, and indeed the two work together with fiendish efficiency.

But these are literally drains on your time, your focus and your mental energy. Every minute you spend checking your phone makes several people somewhere a few fractions of a penny. They don’t care how good your life is. They know you’ll find money for that phone even if you can’t pay the rent.


As an example:

Make it part of your routine to not just turn off the ringer on your phone for study time, but leave it in another room. It may seem bizarre, but earlier generations were completely unavailable for hours at a time while completing important tasks. Get used to disconnecting while you study.

Avoid distractions like the plagues they are. You have a purpose, you have a goal, and you are the kind of person who does things which achieve goals. Prove it by altering your environment as in #2 above. Put your phone in the other room when you’re trying to work. Do whatever else it takes. Make that a habit. Reinforce it, because that’s the kind of thing people who get things done actually do.


  • Establish a Daily Study Routine

One of the things many students discover is that leaving study until last minute ‘marathon cram sessions’ is a really bad idea for them. It can be much more effective (and much, much less stressful) for you to do a little study and revision every single day, even if there is no test or exam coming up.

Like any habit, keeping a consistent study schedule becomes self-reinforcing after a while. Soon you’ll be able to study regularly throughout the school year, without devoting whole days to last minute revision.

Look at your weekly and monthly schedule. Mark out all of your existing commitments – household chores, work schedule, classes, appointments and critical activities. Work around these to establish a regular time to study ether every day, every weekday or even just 3 days each week. So long as you stay committed to maintaining this study schedule – and saying ‘no’ to things which clash with it – you’ll be well on your way to establishing good study habits.

When scheduling study sessions, mark off blocks of time when you are most active and alert. This might be the morning, the evening or even late at night. The important thing is that you set aside your best hours for this!


As an example:

Once you have a good schedule set up, you can always add more time right before a key assignment, test or exam. If you regularly study in the morning, you can add extra cramming time in by waking up an hour earlier. If you prefer studying at night, make a coffee and sty up a bit later when you need to.

Lastly, keep your study schedule flexible! Emergencies and schedule changes will occur, despite our best intentions. If you absolutely have to miss a study session or cut it short, make up the time elsewhere, on the same day if at all possible.



  • Set Realistic Study Goals, and write them down!

Goals must be realistic to be of any help. If you set your sights too high, you’re doomed to fail. This will have a serious effect on your motivation, and could spiral out of control.

You need to assess your needs and capabilities carefully. Get to know how you learn best, and what study styles work for you. Then assess how you actually study in practice. Now look at your grades so far – are you studying enough?

If you are putting the hours in but not seeing results, maybe you should change something about the way you study. Change the time of day you schedule your study sessions, r break them up differently. If your grades are only slipping in some subjects, maybe you need to devote more time to those.


As an example:

Ask yourself a few pointed questions about your study goals and your plans for establishing regular study habits.

  • How long do you typically study at a time?
  • What time of day do you study?
  • Do you find that your study sessions are effective?
  • Are your grades what you want them to be? Are they sufficient for your university and career goals?
  • Are some subjects more difficult for you than others?
  • Do you have other priorities or commitments that compromise your ability to study?

With those answers, you should be able to establish what you need to change about your study habits. If you are regularly short on time, or frequently miss study sessions, maybe you need to reduce your non-school commitments or socialise less?

Remember the SMART method – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound goals are much more likely to be met!


  • New Habits Need New Contexts.

Making habits means making associations between events, places and ideas. To start a new habit, it can often help to start in a new place, at a new time, or in some other context that is not yet associated with habits. Ideally it should be somewhere where you have no existing ‘behavioural associations’, so you can start a new habit with a clean slate.


As an example:

To set up a new study routine, don’t begin in a space where you typically do something else. Starting on the couch were you watch TV is right out, as the temptation will always be there to do that instead. Set up a new ‘study station’ at a desk, a chair or at your local library favourite coffee shop.

You can apply this concept to many other aspects of learning besides your personal study time. These tips work when you’re learning a new language or mastering a new skill such as driving. The point is that where you work is as important as what you do.


  • Good systems are much more important that individual goals.

Goals are not the point, really. If you have developed a truly good system of habits, of behaviour, of living, your goals will practically achieve themselves. They only serve to steer the system, and to test whether it is actually a good system.


As an example:

When setting up a study routine, you should include options from several of the headings here all at once.

  • Ease into a study habit. Start by attending all lectures regularly and on time. Then add in adding 1-3 hours of personal study time after each lecture (including breaks) to review your notes and reflect on what you’ve learned in that session. This combines listening, reading and repetition, three crucial learning styles.
  • Start with the hardest work, the most difficult subjects or topics. This makes it less likely you’ll ‘put them off’ until next session once you’re already fatigued.
  • Break the study session into 2 or more blocks of not less than 30 minutes but not more than one hour. Take breaks of between 5 and 10 minutes between them. Time for your mind to rest is vital to retaining knowledge.

Remember, achieving one goal is important for a mere moment. Creating and maintaining a system whereby your goals are achieved lasts a lifetime. This may be the most difficult piece of advice to actually follow. So much of modern society is goal-oriented. Ironically, the best way to achieve goals is to make them less important than establishing the system of habits which makes it possible to achieve your goals. Consistency, personal growth and healthy habits will pay off a thousand-fold in the long run. Throwing out a perfectly good system to reach out for a single goal is incredibly short-sighted.

Practice forming good habits and breaking bad ones, and you’ll soon find that you’ll not only begin achieving your goals regularly, you’ll become the kind of person you really want to be as apart of the process.