Habits are at first cobwebs, and then cables.
I visited Shari Frost in Chicago last month, and we discussed writing projects over a meal at one of our favorite restaurants, Shaw’s Crab House. When her dinner salad arrived, Shari pulled out her phone and snapped a quick photo of it. I said, “No wonder you wanted a photo — what a lovely salad.” Shari replied, “Well it is pretty, but that’s not why I took a picture of it. I take a picture of everything I eat. It’s a habit I’ve had for a long time. A visual food diary keeps me honest and realistic about what I’m eating.” Shari made some big health changes years ago, with amazing results that have endured.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about habits — why some changes I’ve made stick, and most don’t. What I’ve realized is I usually spend too much time thinking about what I want to change, and not nearly enough time thinking about ways to prompt the new behavior automatically every day. Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit about any habit having three components:
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
It takes a long time for an activity to become a habit, so building in a strong cue is crucial. Every time Shari sits before a plate of food, she automatically pulls out her phone to take a picture. The behavior is almost unconscious, which is what habits are all about. And in that moment of pulling out the phone, she likely thinks, “Is this a healthy choice?”
A few months ago I started keeping an exercise and health log with my sister. We write back and forth each day, just a sentence or two about our exercise and a healthy choice we made that day in an online document. Exercise every day is not habitual for me, but being online is. The cue of having the online log pop up each morning makes me ask, “How will I exercise today?” The cue also has a reward built in — daily contact, often humorous, with a sister I love. Shari not only has a healthier body because of her habit — she’s got the reward of a lovely visual diary compiled over years of many meals, and the memories they spark of family and friends.
Summer is the time when many of us set goals for next year — new habits and routines we want to establish in classrooms, as well as changes that are part of a quest for more balance in our personal lives. New behaviors are far more likely to stick if you figure out a way to cue the new habit. Is there a colleague, close friend, or family member who will correspond with you about the habit daily, or meet up with you regularly to talk about the change? Can you build those cues and rewards into routines you already enjoy?
There is plenty of time in the summer to think about cues and rewards for new school routines. Is there a new job for the class chore list that can be assigned automatically to a student each day that will cue in a new classroom routine? Even if you are likely to forget the new one-minute reflection you want to build into the end of writing workshop, the “Reflection Leader” won’t. Kids have memories like elephants, and they take the responsibilities we give them in classrooms seriously. You might be willing to let go of the new habit or routine after a few weeks, but students probably won’t.
I’m finally figuring out that new habits don’t come from dreaming of being different and humming the theme from Rocky once in awhile. The ones that endure build upon routines and friendships I already prize, and are layered within automatic cues and treasured rewards.
This week, we’re featuring some resources to help you think realistically about habits and goals. Plus more as always — enjoy!
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Here are two articles from the Choice Literacy archives to help you think through the complicated and tenuous nature of habits.
Aimee Buckner writes about the challenge of developing new routines, as well as the wisdom of planning for “curves and dips” as you implement them:
Ruth Ayres uses a baseball metaphor to help herself become more realistic about progress in her essay On Perfection and Goals:
If you want more background on the cue-habit-reward cycle, Charles Duhigg has a detailed description at his website:
The LitforKids blog is featuring a series on children’s literature with a museum theme. There are choices for all ages (from board books for babies to young adult literature). These fun books are the perfect way to build excitement for a summer trip to a museum:
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Katherine Sokolowski finds the impulse for reflection is strong at the start of summer, but reflection works best when it’s built into routines all year long:
Ann Marie Corgill shares how she organizes materials for literacy learning in the third installment of her design series:
Early readers love comic books and graphic novels. Meghan Rose and Ruth Shagoury give their top picks in their latest summer fun for early readers booklist:
In this week’s video, Franki Sibberson confers with Ben, a fourth grader trying to figure out the best audience for his writing at a time when technology offers so many options:
New habits and routines are often about the greatest challenge many of us face — taking care of our own needs when we are tending to the needs of so many others. The Self Care area of the website includes poems, reflections, and even some practical advice from our contributors:
That’s all for this week!