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The Importance of Habits
You set a morning alarm. Your digital calendar reminds you when important dates draw close. When you run the hot water, a boiler kicks into gear.
So much of our lives and environment are automated.
So why should learning be any different?
An astonishing fact: almost half of our day-to-day behaviours are not deliberate. They are the product of habits.
These habits are us on autopilot. They can bring us closer to our learning goals, or take us further away from them. It's just a question of engineering them to serve us well.
Good learning habits are the linchpin of both skill and knowledge acquisition.
Before you can learn a new language, get better at a musical instrument, or work on your coding skills, you need to master the habits that underlie learning: like consistency, presence, and focus. If you have ever embarked on a new self-directed learning project, you will recognize that showing up and paying attention are much harder than they sound.
The good news: there are systems and routines that you can implement TODAY that will ensure that you make rapid, continuous progress.
Even more importantly, they can also help you avoid failure and lapses of practice.
This article uncovers the secrets to building bulletproof learning habits.
Use them, and you will have a powerful framework that you can deploy when learning anything new. They will give you a tailwind that you can leverage to learn new things faster and easier.
Ignore them, and learning will feel like an uphill battle. Unnecessary friction will make the acquisition of new skills feel out of reach.
Read on to discover how you can apply the art of habit design to become an unstoppable learner.
1) Develop a Learning Identity
In Atomic Habits, James Clear points out that most of the time, we change our behaviours by focusing on outcomes and processes. We want to learn how to draw (outcome) so we enroll in courses or watch Youtube videos (process). We rarely focus on the most important part of habit formation: our identities.
Identity is one of the core drivers of behaviour. We will do almost anything to remain in alignment with our self-image. The athlete won’t miss a workout, the chess player wakes up early to study old games, and the learner spends time every week picking up new skills.
But how can we shift our identities to make learning a lifelong habit?
Clear writes: “the most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do.” He proposes a two-step process for shaping your identity:
“1. Decide the type of person you want to become.
2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.”
To develop a learning identity, all it takes is a chain of small achievements across time. Each small victory adds up to make you a self-directed learner.
Reading five pages of a non-fiction book each day doesn’t seem like much, but doing so consistently over the course of several weeks shows that you are committed to learning. One page of daily journaling will fill a journal notebook in half a year, and provide evidence that you are a writer.
Think of your identity and beliefs as under construction. Each action you take contributes to the kind of person you are.
Ask yourself: what is the minimum amount of evidence that would it take to demonstrate that I am a learner?
2) Link New Habits to Old Ones
One of the best ways to build a new routine is to link it to an existing one.
This is called habit stacking, and it works exceptionally well for learning.
You take a behaviour that you perform frequently—like entering a room or brushing your teeth—and create a new routine that occurs right after the initial behaviour.
Let’s say you want to learn the guitar. Every morning, you make yourself make coffee. After you make coffee, you can tack on 10 minutes of guitar practice. Coffee now serves as a convenient cue for you to practice guitar. Even the smell of fresh morning brew will cue the desired routine.
Before you know it, the link between the two behaviours has become strong, and the desired action becomes automatic.
You won’t even have to think about when you will practice. Your morning routine will take shape around the transition between old and new habits.
The habits of successful students are often centred around the practice of habit stacking. Here are some examples of how learning can be facilitated by using solid routines as anchors for new ones:
“After I get home from class, I will open my textbook to the right page and place it on my desk.”
“Once I clean my dishes after dinner, I will memorize 10 vocabulary words in Spanish.”
“After I brush my teeth at night, I will journal about 1 new thing I learned today.”
To use habit stacking effectively, it can be helpful to make a list of all of the automatic behaviours in your day-to-day life. Where can you insert your desired learning routines? Mornings and evenings are particularly ripe for automation.
The less you have to think about where and when you are going to learn, the more you can focus on learning and getting better.
3) Practice Metalearning Habits
Some habits of thinking are powerful learning catalysts. With training, you can use these metalearning (i.e. learning how to learn) techniques to accelerate your rate of progress.
One such habit is questioning. Let’s say you are learning the piano. As you sit down to practice, you can ask yourself:
Cycling through questions like these will help to sharpen your learning abilities, and help you make the most of your limited practice time.
Another important metalearning habit involves using the right system. This is especially important when you are learning multiple skills across shorter periods of time.
Tim Ferriss is a prime example of someone who uses ultra-effective metalearning techniques to learn a lot in the shortest possible time.
His system, called the DiSSS Method, is the ultimate learning hack. If you make a habit of using it, it will transform the way you learn forever.
The method is fourfold:
Each new skill that you pick up provides an opportunity to use this system, and strengthen the habit of using it. When cycling through the four steps becomes automatic, then you have reached a significant level of mastery over the learning process.
4) Become a Learning Habit Architect
Bad learning habits are usually the product of a sub-optimal environment. When physical (and digital) spaces are set up poorly, it becomes almost impossible to learn effectively. Conversely, setting up an ideal space for learning is one of the most underrated interventions you can use to improve the rate at which you learn.
Understand: when the environment around you promotes the learning behaviours you want to engage in, they become a lot easier.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes: “stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects. Start thinking about it as filled with relationships.”
This shift in thinking allows you to see deeper truths about what your surroundings are designed to get you to do.
Is the TV the centrepiece of almost every room? That will determine how you spend much of your time. Are books and magazines placed strategically around the house? If so, they will nudge you towards a different set of behaviours.
Here is a list of ideas for designing an environment that is ideal for learning:
5) Use a Failsafe
We all slip up and miss a workout or a learning session once in a while. That’s to be expected. The real question is: what do you when you miss once?
Persistence of learning involves anticipating errors, and having a failsafe system in place to prevent further ones. A simple strategy can help overcome guilt and get you back on track quickly: avoid the second mistake.
The day after slipping up is a huge inflection point. It is where you decide whether to maintain a habit or let it go. It works for almost everything: exercise, meditation, reading, and learning new skills. Creating a chain of practice sessions across time is how you build the muscle of habit. And it all starts with consistency, and not missing days.
It seems simple, and it is. But it is one of the most effective “algorithms” I have come across for learning and behaviour change.
If you are interested in unlocking the power of your habits further, I recommend these three books:
For more on learning about consistency and systems for mastery, you might be interested in John Danaher’s 5 lessons on learning or Benjamin Franklin’s deliberate practice method for writing.