Replace one habit with another

Effortful inhibition is difficult and rarely successful in the long-term but, as we have seen, we can combine it with habit replacement. We will often return to bad habits if we have tried to curtail them and there is nothing to replace them, which is why certain behaviours (such as smoking) are difficult to break. However, Wood and Neal suggest that effortful inhibition does provide a window of opportunity to replace the maladaptive habit with a new more adaptive one. Habits take time to form, meaning that our old habit gradually morphs into a new one, so while we struggle to inhibit behaviour that leads to us grabbing that packet of biscuits, perhaps we, instead, reach out for a healthy alternative (or replacing an unhelpful response to a setback with a more useful one).

In a learning situation, teachers might discourage students from cramming for exams and to space their revision over a longer period of time. This requires much more than just replacing one habit (cramming) with a new adaptive one (distributed practice) and will, no doubt, involve more sophisticated types of time management and planning. One way would be to start early and initially allocate relatively short periods of time to different topics and setting nudges and environmental cues in place to support the behavioural change, such as studying at the same time every day and making sure that distractions are kept to a minimum. It also helps if students study in the same place each time. This last point can be difficult, especially in schools where space is in short supply and the same subject may be taught in different classrooms. Primary school pupils are perhaps at an advantage here because they have a classroom they can call their own and behavioural cues can be built into the environment more easily

Habit pairing

Habit pairing involves taking two habits and combining them. This can be particularly helpful if we're attempting to nurture a new habit. Perhaps someone wants to read more but is having problems simply finding the time; however, they always manage to find the time to sit down and have a cup of tea at 3.30 every day. By combining reading with tea drinking, we pair two habits into a single 'cup of tea and a book' habit - the tea habit then reinforces the new reading habit. Obviously, some habits may be incompatible (such as reading and watching television) so we must remain mindful about which habits we choose to pair. As teachers, we can ask ourselves which habitual behaviours can be paired successfully.

Commitment, consistency and cues

Telling other people about the commitment we have made to change a habit can both illicit help and support and make it more difficult for us to change our behaviour. Also, think about how the behaviour should be triggered. Cues might involve setting an alarm or engaging with the behaviour in a particular setting or with a friend. Good habits are easier to form if the wider environment encourages routine so think about, for example, what you need your students to do when they enter the classroom and reinforce this behaviour by nudging them in the right direction. We can also exploit existing habits, for example, one teacher I know realised that his class would often look at what was written on the board and ask, 'Is that for us?' He then began writing a series of questions or prompts on the board as the class arrived, nudging the students to immediately prepare themselves for the lesson. This is not an unusual strategy, but viewing it in light of what we now understand about habit formation provides the impetus on which to build other nudges into lessons.

If/then statements

These are expanded on in the next chapter as a means to overcome setbacks in the pursuit of goals, but are also useful for habit formation. On a very basic level we can use the example of 'If you have a question/then raise your hand', thus also encouraging self-control or 'If I raise my hand/then stop what you're doing and face the front of the classroom'. For older students, we might encourage them to think in terms of 'If it is 5 o'clock/then I will do my homework'.

Identify and reduce distractions

Spend some time observing your class and make a note of the things that are distracting them. Electronic devices are the most obvious but hopefully there will already be a consistent policy in place to deal with this. Students might be staring at classroom displays, watching people in the corridor or reacting to the behaviour of other students. Other considerations might include low-level chatter, feet shuffling and similar minor distractions. How you, as the classroom teacher, deal with these will depend on how disruptive you feel they are and what kind of classroom environment you are comfortable with.

Reward good habits or suppress bad ones

If you decide to reward good habits, what form will the reward take? Praise is the most straightforward and can be surprisingly effective. Rewards are most effective if the aim is to reduce a bad habit rather than encourage a good one.

Main points

  • • Habits are powerful tools but we must remain mindful that they can be both advantageous and detrimental to our goal pursuit (everything from academic success to general wellbeing).
  • • Habits are also slow to form and must be repeated often if they are to provide us with maximum advantage.
  • • Bad or maladaptive habits are difficult to eradicate but can provide an opportunity for new habit formation.
  • • Remaining mindful of habits can help to identify those that are useful and inhibiting those that are not.
  • • The main advantage of habit formation is that habits aid in the pursuit of goals, which in turn helps students to bounce back when things don't go according to plan.
  • • Once habits are formed we don't need to think about them too much, which spares up cognitive capacity and reduces anxiety while increasing levels of general wellbeing.
  • • In the classroom, useful habits can be encouraged through the nurturing of everyday routines that create a positive and productive environment.


Lally, P„ van Jaarsveld, С. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. ejsp.674

Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Wu, M., & Kurlander, D. (2011). The pull of the past: When do habits persist despite conflict with motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1428-1437. 0146167211419863

Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479-488. 1864-9335/ a000216

Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843-863. 0033-295X.114.4.843

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