The Importance of Habits

In his recent book, Atomic Habit, James Clear digs into the idea of habits and how we make and break them. There were a few ideas that stuck out to me and are related to innovation coaching. Because teaching is so complex, it is easy for people to revert back to old and comfortable ways when things get busy, complicated, or our energy otherwise becomes engaged. This is why habits are so important to understand and develop in terms of the dispositions of innovation. Unless these dispositions become habitual, they will most certainly become something that occurs in a hit or miss fashion depending on the day because an educators energy is so frequently and unpredictably being called on in various ways.

Frequency, not length of time

I recently stood near a neighboring math teacher as she greeted her students into the classroom. As she did, each learner shared his/ her daily struggle. Almost every student had some immediate need. The class hadn’t even started and already this math teacher is filing away every student’s current status which she will use to inform how she delivers instruction, who she calls on, and who she checks in with during independent work time. All of these issues are on her mind while she delivers instruction, checking around the room to see what each student needs at that moment. This process goes on for 75 minutes. She also manages various other interruptions, requests and makes hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions simultaneously. If we want her to be able to also think innovatively as she makes these decisions, it must be part of her nature; she must do it without expending any extra energy; without needing to think about it. It must be an automatic part of her practice and way of thinking. As we think about helping each other develop these dispositions as habits, we need to remember that this cannot happen if the challenge is too great. Finding the small, repeatable behavior that becomes a part of the teacher’s routine is the key to automaticity. On a related note, James Clear discusses the fact that habits become habits, not by the amount of time that passes but by the number of times the behavior is repeated. For example, doing something one time each day for 30 days could create a habit but so could doing something 30 times in one day. So it’s not about how long but how frequent. Creating conditions where you or your colleagues are doing something more frequently is a strategy for creating habits.


Another idea from this book that resonated with me about creating habits is that it’s frequently not the habit that is an issue but the system behind the repetition of the habit that fails. For example, I have never been able to consistently floss my teeth. My dentist has been yelling at me since I was twelve and my behavior has yet to change. Recently my nephew moved in with us and brought with him Plackers, a product that makes it easy to floss your teeth. One day I tried one and it was easy so I put them in a visible location and now I have gone a month flossing pretty much every day except when I travel. So the problem wasn’t the flossing but rather the system that I had in place to make the flossing happen. Knowing this is helpful because then we can be working to identify a system for the habit that someone (or you) want to implement. By focusing on systems rather than behaviors, we also make the process more objective and less personal which sometimes leads to resistance where change is concerned.

Working backward

The last idea that is important is that any strategy you use to develop new habits can be done backwards to unlearn bad habits. James Clear identifies many ways to develop new habits and at the end, every strategy can be done backwards in order to get rid of bad habits. So, if I make something easy to do in order to build a good habit, I can also make a habit difficult to complete in order to get rid of a bad habit. If habit building is something that is of interest, I would highly recommend reading this book.

CLEAR, J. (2017). ATOMIC HABITS. Place of publication not identified: RANDOM House BUSINESS.

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