Changing habits

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 “Humans. Making air. That’ll be fun to watch.”

Ok, I admit it. I just got back from my local Safeway with a plastic grocery bag full of bread – on sale for $1.30 a loaf – who could buy only one! – and a disposable starbucks cup full of dark roast goodness. I did this despite all my good intentions and having literally dozens of reusable grocery bags kicking around and a half dozen reusable coffee cups. You probably do too… so what gives?

It gets worse. I had just watched the whole Nature is Speaking series – Kevin Spacey’s is above, in case you missed it ↑  and still I forgot to be responsible, to be environmentally conscious, to make purposeful choices… I was in fact, the opposite of responsible. I was functionally unconscious, pre-occupied, and mindless and in that state, habit became the driver. I let habits – or lack of good habits – derail me… and I probably pissed off nature and Mr. Spacey to boot.

Replace a habit with a habit

I know this stuff.. the habit stuff. I’ve taught it for years. Beliefs, thoughts, behaviours, change and habits were and still are the foundation of almost everything I teach or design curriculum around. This is all deep learning stuff and I know about that stuff… right? Clearly I don’t grok it as much as I think I do. Time to hit the mental reset button and form some better, purpose driven, and responsible habits.

By the way – we say replace a habit with a habit because many habits form to fill a need or want. I have the habit of drinking coffee in the morning because I want to be be more awake and alert than I am naturally. The “want” probably won’t go away, but I could replace the habit of drinking coffee with a healthier habit, that helped me feel awake and alert.

Three steps to changing a habit

Step 1 – Identify the habit or habits that need replacing

Easy – I am in the habit of leaving the house without cloth bags and reusable coffee cups.

Step 2 – Choose replacement habits

Also easy – Take the bags and cup with me.

Step 3 – Replace the unwanted habit(s) with the desired habit(s)

Easy? Not so much. It sounds easy. It looks easy enough. Sure is easy to talk and write about. It’s the doing it; the actual making-the-change-stick part, that seems to be the problem.

How change works

To understand how to replace habits, or to change any behaviour, it helps to have a a basic understanding of how change works. I default to the transtheoretical model of behaviour change because it’s well researched and makes sense to me. Although this model is used mostly in behavioural health – diet, exercise, substance abuse and recovery – its really a model of how most of us experience change in all areas of our lives. One of the critical parts of this model is the big X between precontemplation and contemplation. For most of us, most of the time, something has to happen for us to begin to think about changing a behaviour, especially a behaviour that has become a habit. That thing is a motivator.

Graphic showing model of change
The Model of Change

A little thing called motivation

Motivation is driven by two things  – carrots and sticks. A good thing or a not so good thing. The avoidance of pain or the desire for pleasure. Fear and love. The red X in the model above could be a good thing happening or a not so good thing and yes, sometimes its just a slow and gradual realization and the X is a thought.

Pain and pleasure, real or imagined, that’s what gets us humans moving. Actually it’s what gets all species moving. The ability to experience pain and pleasure is not uniquely human however delaying gratification and enduring pain due to reason, is a human thing. Humans can rationalize and make choices based on our beliefs and thoughts. Well, most of us can anyways. To put it another way, animals don’t train themselves, humans can.

Diagram of the human brain showing reward centers
The pleasure or reward bundle.

Motivation is a bit more complicated than just carrots and sticks. There is a host of biology, psychology and chemistry that affects motivation but in most cases and for most people, it comes down to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. What each person perceives as painful or pleasurable can vary immensely. For example, the very thought of having to sing in public is excruciatingly painful for me. I would rather have a root canal. That feeling motivates me to avoid all Karaoke night invitations. In fact if you invite me to sing I will not have to think about responding, I will habitually and reflexively say “NO, thanks”. I’m Canadian, so saying “thanks” is a habit too.

Motivation is what makes or breaks step 3 for most people. There needs to be initial motivation and then that motivation has to be sustained until the habit sticks. The timeframe varies but most simple habits can be made to stick in about three weeks. Using extreme pain can make a habit stick in one go but the trauma is usually not worth it. Sadly extreme pleasure doesn’t seem to work as well. We are wired to avoid pain more than we are wired to seek pleasure. Pity…

Bootcamp for the brain

Ok, so what do we do about habits we want to replace? How do we translate what we know about change and motivation into a plan that will work? Here’s a couple of things that work.

1. Repetition. Remember that old adage about practice making perfect. Well, thats not quite right. Practice – repeating something over and over, makes it permanent, not necessarily perfect. Repetition makes things permanent and makes things easier. Just like running stairs at bootcamp. At first you think you are going to die and three weeks later you realize you won’t die, you’ll just… ok, never mind. You get the point.

2. Reminders. Placing something in the environment that cues or reminds you that you have decided to do something differently. In my case this could include putting the cloth bags and coffee cups on the front seat of the car or right beside my wallet. That way I’d see them before I left the house.

2. Making it easier to do it than not do it. This works really well for some things. For example if you want to replace the habit of eating chips in the evening and have decided to eat carrots instead, you could make sure there were no chips in the house and keep fresh carrots, ready to eat, at the front of the fridge.

3. Build in rewards for doing the new thing. Starbucks gives me 10 cents off my coffee if I use my own cup but that hasn’t been enough of a reward to keep me motivated. That’s the challenge with rewards – they have to be perceived as valuable by the receiver. Oddly, rewards don’t have to be overly consistent. Game theory has proved that inconsistent rewards are more effective in getting people to repeat behaviours. That’s why gambling is such big business and why it’s such a problem.

Happy idea bulbHere’s an idea. Safeway and Starbucks share a location (in some areas). Why not help motivate people to use their eco-friendly bags and mugs by adding a game element. Give me Karma Points or Enviro-Points each time I use a re-usable coffee cup at Starbucks or a cloth bag at Safeway. Better yet, extend it to multiple stores and include some kind of chance at a tangible reward.  For example, if I collected over X number of Points I could trade them in for a chance to win an ecotour. Even cooler, assign them a value and let me give them to store staff that are especially helpful, or to a local charity. Giving lights up the pleasure centers in our brain… weird, eh.

4. Make not doing the new thing, painful. Ok, this is harder but there are some ways to do this without devolving into behaviours like snapping your own wrist with a rubber band – who comes up with this stuff? One thing that some of us could and would do – you know who you are – would be to use a Tweet of Shame. This is something that is uncomfortable enough to motivate but not so uncomfortable that folks would lie about it to avoid genuine embarrassment.


I’m going to commit to this, out loud, right here and on social media, in a few minutes. That’s #5 btw. Committing out loud keeps you accountable, as long as the commitment and consequence are both realistic.

I commit to admitting, on Twitter, when I relapse and don’t use cloth bags and/or a reusable coffee mug.


What are you going to do to not piss off nature? ‘Cos, seriously, I can’t make air and I bet you can’t either.



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The Environments of Learning

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This video was shared by Tom Whitford in response to a post by David Culberhouse aka @DCulberhouse. The post asks us to think deeply about how environment impacts learning. To quote Dave,

As we question whether our instructional methods are fitting to our changing times…we also have to determine if our physical environments are conducive to supporting learning in the 21st century.  Environment is not about whether we are using rows or group seating in our classrooms…it is about taking a deep and reflective look at the environment of our entire organization.  And being able to decipher what message our organization’s physical environment is sending…

Absolutely! The way we design our physical environments says something. We need to pay more attention to the physical environment that we ask people (kids are people too) to be in while they learn.

What does your space say?

A few years ago I worked for a fairly well known non-profit. They did some amazing work in advocating and directly helping women and children. They also had this policy and practice around the counters in their office spaces. The counters were all over 4 feet high and had additional glass barriers on top of that. The message was very clear. It said we are afraid of you and we sure as heck don’t trust you. I did some digging and sure enough the counters were in response to one incident when an irate and mentally ill client jumped the counter. They didn’t understand that by sending the message through their environment that “you scare us” they were most likely increasing the likelihood of having people act out. They were also making it hard for their staff to be the respectful and caring people that they were.

The emotional environment

I recently had to pick up one of my grandkids at her middle school. It was awful. I felt like I was doing something wrong just by being there. There is a massive empty space at the entrance that looks like it might be used during lunch and other breaks, but as this was class time there we no kids. The main office was just off to the side of this space and like most school offices, it was built like a fortess. I have been in correctional institutions that were more and inviting than this school. (Corrections folks know about the impact of environment on behaviour.)

The real challenge with this particular grandkid pickup event was the emotional environment set by the office staff. I went to the window and there were two staff chatting at he back of the room and one sitting at a desk near the window. The all did the office staff stare when I approached. you know the one. The look that says, “we see you and will get over to you when we it’s convenient for us”. No smile, not even a neutral expression. A definite message message though. The visit went downhill from there. I understand the need for vigilance and child safety but alienating the majority is not the best route.

Signs that say welcome

The other story I have about environment and messages relates to parking spaces. I had a meeting at a school district office recently and there was literally one space for visitor parking and it was really hard to find.  The sign for the one space said something like “Visitor Parking. Do not park in stall marked for staff. You will be towed.” How about something like “So sorry we only have one stall for you. Please use it so the tow truck stays away”. Both say the same thing but the message is very different.


The video at the top of this post describes an environment that is aligned with recent research on empathy and children.

Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez show a relationship between child rearing practices common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies (how we humans have spent about 99 percent of our history) and better mental health, greater empathy and conscience development, and higher intelligence in children. (Science Daily 2010)

Narvaez identified six practices that may increase empathy, intelligence and overall well being in children.

  • Lots of positive touch — as in no spanking — but nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding;
  • Prompt response to baby’s fusses and cries. You can’t “spoil” a baby. This means meeting a child’s needs before they get upset and the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals. “Warm, responsive caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.
  • Breastfeeding, ideally 2 to 5 years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until age 6 and breast milk provides its building blocks.
  • Multiple adult caregivers — people beyond mom and dad who also love the child.
  • Free play with multi-age playmates. Studies show that kids who don’t play enough are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health issues.
  • Natural childbirth, which provides mothers with the hormone boosts that give the energy to care for a newborn.

Schools can’t provide most of these, only parents and caregivers can. Schools can create environments that promote interactions between children of differing ages and increase the number of adult caregivers that that children form attachments with.

The other BIG thing that stood out for me in the video, also related to the idea of grouping kids with multi-age playmates, has to do with how we learn. In the video they call this flex grouping and one of the teachers in the video talks about kids teaching other kids and how that helps them learn.

In a brain scan of a child doing four distinct learning activities – reading, writing, listening and telling – the brain activity is most active when the child is telling someone about that he had read or heard. Telling, explaining, showing, describing, teaching activates the brain and learning becomes deeper, richer and more connected, literally. Providing opportunities for kids to learn by teaching other kids should be front and centre in considering learning spaces and practices.

Horses and carts

One final word. In Tom’s response to Dave original blog on this he offers us a glimpse into his wife’s mind more than her classroom. A new environment alone will not change learning. Teachers all over the world create warm and inviting spaces because their environment is a reflection of who they are. Great teachers with access to great environments are going to do great work. Great teachers in awful environments will still find a way to connect with their learners. But the best environment in the world will not make an uninformed or disconnected teacher great.


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