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In action

Changing, eliminating or nurturing habits can be difficult and often requires a high level of effort. As we have seen, however, developing adaptive habits can lead to many positives outcomes, including raising levels of wellbeing, higher levels of academic achievement and an increase in people's ability to simply get things done. There are several strategies that have proved effective in both classroom environments and non-educational settings, including our personal lives.

Turn off autopilot

The most successful way to break bad habits is to remain mindful of them. This is what we call self-regulation of habits or increasing meta-awareness. We have attempted to do this by avoiding the biscuit aisle but that hasn't worked out too well for us. Perhaps we could try sticking to the shopping list and focussing our attention on the items there? Or visualising how we might look and feel if we gave up biscuits altogether. Similarly, each time we pick up our phone to check our emails, we can ask ourselves, 'Why am I doing this? I've only just checked them.' When we find ourselves about to activate the habit we focus on the behaviour, rather than away from it, and mentally tell ourselves to stop.

Becoming mindful of our everyday interactions allows us to identify habits, both bad and good. Some time ago I adopted a plant-based diet, which forced me to pay more attention to things I bought in the supermarket and the food I consumed. In the process of doing so, I became more acutely aware of my unconscious habitual patterns of behaviour; reaching for items I didn't need and consuming food I knew was unhealthy. I began to read labels to identify the ingredients, ensuring they didn't contain powered milk products while others were checked for their protein, iron and sources of vitamin B12.1 began to prepare more meals from scratch, and in the process became even more mindful of what I was consuming.

The same occurs when we encourage students to become more aware of the way they are engaging in academic study. Rather than simply going through the motions, students become aware of the process of learning (what is called meta-cognition) and develop more effective ways of monitoring their own progress, holding on to habits that work in their favour, while jettisoning those that are holding them back. This might be simply becoming aware of how often their own mind wanders or when they feel the urge to chat to their classmate. On a more sophisticated level, it might involve becoming more aware of effective study strategies, for example, stopping themselves when they began to re-read a text in preparation for an exam and instead deciding to engage in self-testing.

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