Old habits are hard to break

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

We all have all sorts of habits. Some of them are good and helpful while others are not so good or even bad.

In the context of studying, for example, moving your phone or tablet to a different room than the one in which you do your homework and then doing your homework without accessing your social media, is clearly a better study habit than surfing the Web for a few hours every evening before starting your homework or surfing so long that you don’t do it at all.

Logan Fiorella (known to many for what he wrote with Richard Mayer on productive learning strategies – see our overview blog here) published a review article on the science behind habits and its implications for learning and mental wellbeing. In short, learning interventions often focus on informing and motivating learners (how) to use particular study strategies, but they don’t usually focus on making those study strategies study habits. Ideally learning interventions should help learners develop helpful habits, such as frequent retrieval, studying in stable contexts (same time, same place, same situation…), and also rewarding yourself after you’ve finished studying is important to build in automatism in your study behaviour.

Habits are – often unconscious – things we do and they’re often related to (and thus triggered by) specific contexts such as time, location, and so on. Think about lighting up a cigarette after dinner or cracking your knuckles when you’re stressed. We form habits by repeating a specific behavior in such a stable context. This repetition creates (mental) associations between context (finished eating, stress) and reaction (the habit; lighting up, cracking your knuckles).

But what does habit-formation entail? As humans, we seem to make quite a few assumptions when it comes to habit-formation.

One assumption that we often make is that habit-formation is mainly influenced by conscious intentions. We want to do something so we consciously do it. But this isn’t necessarily so. Yes, setting goals can be important when we start doing something, but setting those goals certainly isn’t enough to form a habit. The same is true for motivation. Being motivated to do something doesn’t guarantee success; it just means that we’re more likely to start on something. Think about all of those times you signed up to go to the gym, went a few times, and then just let your membership card lie in the drawer, unused, until the subscription ends or worse (e.g. it was automatically renewed for a year).

This gym is almost empty for a reason 😉

A second assumption is that habit formation is a matter of self-control and that you have to control yourself to suppress our bad habits and to carry out, often new, good ones. Self-control – keeping yourself in check – requires what Fiorella calls effortful inhibition[1]. We have to make an effort to counter our bad habits. Habits, on the other hand, are effortless; they cost little to no effort. This is why self-control isn’t enough. It simply won’t do; the habits will always overrule the ‘self-control’ simply because they’re effortless.

And what should we do if we want to form new habits? The answer is simple, namely: we shouldn’t focus on setting new goals or on keeping ourself under control. Instead, we need to focus on developing good habits! In other words, make good habits the ‘default’ option, because only then they’re effortless to implement. Instead of trying to stop with our old bad habits, we should concentrate on trying to develop new good ones

The question here is: How? While the standard approach to changing a habit usually focuses on internal factors such as goals, beliefs, motivation, and intentions, in reality these factors don’t actually determine our habits.

Forming a good habit (e.g., going to bed on time) usually requires breaking an existing bad habit first (e.g. staring at our tablet in bed). The problem is that old habits are automatically triggered by fixed cues from our context (e.g., the presence of a tablet within reach in the bedroom).

This is why breaking a habit is less about the extent to which we plan to change our behavior and more about limiting or eliminating our exposure to it (If you don’t want to eat ice cream while sitting on the sofa watching TV, then the first step is not to have the ice cream in the freezer in the first place; you can’t eat what’s not there.). This doesn’t require major changes in how we live, but it does require changing specific signals associated with the behaviour.

Here’s how to make it happen when it comes to study habits. First, we need to create a supportive context. We need to remove distracting things from our environment and, if possible, replace them with helpful things. For example, a paper dictionary on the desk instead of an online dictionary reduces the chance that you’ll be tempted to use the Internet while studying.

Also, the behaviour must be easy to repeat. If you have to go the extra mile, such as walk to another room to get a dictionary, chances are you won’t, at least in the long run.

Third, habits must be linked to fixed signals from the environment. Finished eating dinner (hopefully something you do every evening)? Then do your homework right away. Heading to bed? Switch off your phone before going to your room and keep a book on your nightstand.

Finally, you need to make the habit ‘pay off’; that is, carrying out the desired (‘good’) behavior should be associated with a reward. It might surprise you that (1) an intrinsic reward, such as a sense of accomplishment, works better than an external reward that you’ve decided on (both work, but the former works better than the latter according to Fiorella), and (2) an unexpected external reward such as an unexpected praise from a teacher or a positive comment from someone can also be important, and (3) self-reward (i.e., gaming for a short time after your homework, undisturbed) has been completed) work.

What does all this mean for studying and learning? While we know that certain study habits work and others don’t, just knowing which study habits work well is not enough. Even consciously ‘fueling’ yourself up to use effective and efficient learning strategies doesn’t automatically lead to using those good study habits. However, things like putting away highlighters and having a notepad open will help avoid highlighting (not as effective) and make note-taking easier (more effective). Or how about rewarding yourself (playing a game for fifteen minutes) after testing yourself instead of rereading the text? Those types of behaviour reinforce those good habits.

In a nutshell, if you want to build effective study habits: Eliminate the triggers for bad habits, create a supportive context for good habits, and make beneficial habits pay.

Just do it!


Logan Fiorella, The Science of Habit and Its Implications for Student Learning and Well-beingEducational Psychology Review 32(5) (september 2020), DOI:10.1007/s10648-020-09525-1

[1] Effortful inhibition is the process of inhibiting prepotent [strong] thoughts, feelings, or behavioral tendencies and refrain from acting on them. The classical illustration of effortful inhibition is the dieter’s confrontation with a tempting chocolate cake. (Nielsen, K. S. (2017). From prediction to process: A self-regulation account of environmental behavior change. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 51, 189-198.)