How to Eliminate Harmful Learning Habits

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, 40 - 45% of what we do each day is a habit, not a decision.

As I write this we’re a few days into a new year. This time of year is ripe for reflection and resolutions.

You’ve set goals. But have you thought about your habits? 

  • Which ones are getting you closer to your goals?

  • Which ones are holding you back?

  • More importantly, how do you get past the habits that aren’t contributing to your success?

That’s the question that I’ve been mildly obsessed about as a course designer lately.

What's a Habit?

(Besides being the thing that nuns wear.)

There’s a lot of varying opinions and definitions about habits. A quick Google search turned up this definition from Merriam-Webster:

Definition of habit:
a : a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance
b : an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary got up early from force of habit
c : addiction a drug habit

There's a few things we can take from this:

  • Habits are things you do automatically and repeatedly.

  • They can also be addictive or harmful.

For example, you hop out of bed and brush your teeth. Or you might stop at the same cafe on your way to the office. 

You get the idea.  

But how do habits affect your course?

Habits and Your Online Course

The goal of every online course is to effect transformation (usually a behavior change). Yet, chances are your students are going to come to the table with harmful habits when they begin your course. 

  • Some of them may procrastinate.

  • Some of them may tend to leave things unfinished.

  • Some of them may want to skip the work and get straight to the reward.

  • Some of them may get stuck in doubt and uncertainty and escape to Netflix, never to be seen again!

For example, when I launched Jumpstart Your Course, I surveyed my students at the end of the course to get feedback and learn about their struggles. 

One student, had this to say about her habits during the course:

At first I was dragging my feet about doing all the worksheets and opted instead to just do the work in my head—because I’m stubborn/ lazy like that. But eventually I relented and did the worksheets. That made a huge difference. The quality of the course is fantastic / the things I’m learning are extremely valuable.
— An awesome student in Jumpstart Your Course

Notice something? This student was able to identify her harmful habit and make a behavior correction. Once she did, she saw better results.

But this is unusual.

In fact, most of your students won’t self-correct on their own. You'll have to guide them.


Because if you’re trying to help students transform a behaviour without first addressing the underlying habit, that’s when they'll get stuck. 

Lucky for you there’s something you can do to help your students.

Designing for Habits

What can you do to help your students overcome their harmful habits?

Here’s a few pointers:

#1 - be Aware

Awareness is the first step to change.

  • Create a simple way for your students to identify their behaviour

  • Something as simple as a habit journal where they jot down what they're doing at certain times is a great solution.

#2 - Identify Triggers

Triggers are things that spark a certain behavior or response.

  • Before change can occur, it's important for your students to identify what triggers their harmful habits.

For example, Alex Hillman recently wrote an excellent article about how he and Amy Hoy helped their students overcome bad learning habits. Here's a quote: 

Our students would start feeling anxious when they tried something new and a habit would kick in. They’d avoid trying for fear of “doing it wrong.”
Our students would get a burst of creative inspiration and a habit would kick in. They’d put the unsexy research aside to start building.
The problem was that our lessons attempt to reverse the direction without first altering these underlying habits.
— Alex Hillman

So they created a mini-course to help students address their hidden habits before starting their flagship course, 30 x 500.

#3 - Brainstorm Solutions

Julie Dirksen writes about habits in her book Design for How People Learn. She says it’s not enough to set a goal to break a habit. You have to identify the situations in which they occur, then create a plan for dealing with them. 

  • Once your learners have identified their harmful habits and triggers, ask them to make a list of possible solutions or replacement habits.

Here's a couple examples:

If I get distracted on social media while creating my content, I will turn on my Facebook blocker app.

If I feel uncertain about my course idea, I will survey my audience to gauge their interest.

#4 - Encourage feedback

Feedback is integral in changing habits. And feedback isn't always a verbal exchange. Sometimes it's a virtual high five gif in your course. Or a certificate.

It doesn't matter what form it comes in, as long as it's there.

  • Provide progress-based feedback to your students.

  • Encourage your students to track their own habit progress and create rewards/ consequences depending on how well they do.

#5 - reduce Barriers

Progress isn't a straight line. Sometimes your environment supports bad habits. Other times there are mental blocks that your students have to deal with before they can change.

  • Ask your students to think about what's stopping them from being successful in changing their habit?

  • Is there anything you can change in your course to reduce barriers to success or add friction when bad habits pop up?

One of the reasons communities are great at boosting student results is that they add a type of habit friction via peer pressure. When we see other students doing the work it forces us to reckon with ourselves and our habits.

Back to You

Going forward, I plan to adjust every program I offer to include a mini-course on habits. Keep an eye out for the results!

How do you design for habits in your course? 

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