According to research done at Duke University, more than 40 percent of the actions people take each day are unconscious habits.
In his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” Charles Duhigg tells the story of Lisa Allen, a thirty-four year old woman who, in relatively short order, transformed herself from a drunk, overweight, out of work smoker hounded by collection agencies, into a thin, vibrant, gainfully employed, debt-free, marathon running master’s degree student.
And she did all that by focusing on just one thing: a habit.
Contrary to popular belief, according to Duhigg, making significant life changes doesn’t actually require a lot of conscious effort—just the reprograming of a few habits. And as it turns out, some habits matter a lot more than others. They’re called “keystone habits,” and over time, changing just one can trigger a cascade that will ripple through every facet of a person’s life.
For example: Exercise, even as little as once a week, is a keystone habit. There’s something about it that makes changing other lifestyle patterns easier. “Typically, people who exercise start eating better and become more productive at work,” writes Duhigg. “They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed.”
Research is also uncovering other keystone habits. Children from families that eat dinner together regularly get better grades, have more confidence and greater emotional control. People who make the bed every morning are better at sticking to a budget, are more productive and feel better about themselves. In the case of Lisa Allen, she focused on quitting one bad habit–smoking.
So what is the single most important keystone habit driving success in school? My research, though perhaps not as rigorous as the data Duhigg sights, indicates that students who use a daily planner or assignment notebook are significantly more successful than those who don’t.
Sure, kids with planners get better grades, but that’s just a side effect of being more organized. Why? Items in the planner don’t have to be stored in short-term memory anymore. This frees up energy for all kinds of cascading changes. So be warned: Teen use of planners has been shown to increase not only grades, but confidence, creativity, and even happiness.
There are endless time management and planning “systems” one can invest in, and entire self help libraries have been written on this topic. My advice? Avoid them all. Simply get a planner and use it to jot down tasks and assignments after each class. This does not need to be fancy. In fact, it shouldn’t be. A spiral notebook works just fine.
The important thing is not the system but the creation of a habit.
The power is in the routine. Commit to working with your student to use a planner religiously for the first thirty days of school. Work hard on creating this single habit. Just one. Early on, this will take focus and effort, but after the habit is set, you’ll be amazed at how easily things begin to fall into place.
The influential English poet, John Dryden once said, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” Now that we better understand the power of keystone habits, we can more easily remake both. And our students can reap the rewards.