• Headteacherchat

As Aristotle said: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.’

What a benefit it is to have a routine in your life.


Only last week I was thinking about goal setting and all the promises I made to myself to eat less, exercise more, have started to fall by the wayside. In fact, research conducted a few years ago, suggests 75 per cent of target setting does not work in the long term. It is easy to blame a lack of willpower, but habit is a significant and very overlooked, obstacle.


Psychologists believe as much as 45 per cent of daily behaviour is governed by habit. The reason we are so good at forming habits is that when it comes to things we do often, the brain likes to lump things together, (cue often a time of day or environment) and reward to reduce the amount of mental energy that is needed to make it happen. Habit is a potent force that one study found people who routinely eat biscuits (the behaviour) at break time (the cue) will chomp it down even when it is stale, despite not getting the taste (the reward) they expected.

Those who have a teaching habit do not find it difficult to do the same thing each day. When the whistle goes off, autopilot kicks in and we are by the door waiting for the next lesson. But imagine that when the whistle goes off you must teach another class instead. You must get ready for another set of routines, where are the books, pencils, rubbers etc. Or you are going on a course and must explain your routines to another teacher. And all that thinking leaves you more vulnerable to others judging you when you are not in your comfort zone.

I noticed this recently when I was not in school. When I had to change my routines around, I found myself procrastinating and forgetting things. You could argue I simply found the new activities less interesting than teaching, but I do not think that is it: instead, it comes down to the mental and physical effort that is required to perform an activity that is not yet a habit. Hence, despite the best intentions, the failure of so many of my targets.

The plus side of my experience is a newfound understanding for the coaches who are struggling to make some aspects of teaching a habit. Before, I assumed that people who are unable to develop their pedagogical understanding would be down to a lack of willpower. But now I realise what a bonus it is to have a routine in your life. For one thing, being a regular exerciser means you have less willpower because habit takes over. Once formed, habits are also good at weathering the storms life throws at us. A study published in the journal of personality and social psychology found that when we are stressed or tired, we are more likely to default to habits - good or bad, and we are likely to perform them more than usual.

When we try to change behaviour, we strategise about motivation and self-control, but what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits,’ says Professor Wendy Wood of South California US, who conducted the research.