How to Build Study Good Habits - A Beginner's Guide

We live in a world full of quick fixes, 30-day transformations, and “secrets” to being a better person. Let me start by saying: there are no secrets and quick fixes are bullshit. The only way to see any sort of significant change in our lives is by changing our habits.

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits - practical, emotional, and intellectual, - systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny.
— William James

What we do everyday will ultimately define whom we become. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone who studies and invests themselves in science everyday becomes a good scientist. Likewise, good writers write everyday. 

I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.
— Flannery O' Connor

Habits take time and effort to change. Some studies show that we actually have a limited amount of willpower. When we make too many choices we actually exhaust our willpower and this is known as ego depletion. For example, consider someone who has been resisting the temptation to eat junk food all day. As a result, they are diminishing their willpower. According to the theory of ego depletion, if this person was to tackle a difficult problem they would be likely to give up faster than someone who was not exercising their willpower all day. This makes the importance of habits really obvious. Habits are automatic behaviours that we don’t really need to think about. The more behaviours we can make automatic, the less willpower we exhaust in the day, and the better we get at doing the things we want to do. There is so much to learn about habits, and they will continue to be a topic on EngineeringWorth as I learn more about them. For now, I present to you a simple outline for building good habits. 

01 | Planning

The first step to creating a habit is to plan it. We need to carve out time in our schedules and really pinpoint a place for the habit. According to this study habits are best implemented along side cues. For example, after dinner I will read for 30 minutes or after breakfast I will go for a 30 minute walk. The basic structure is: if x happens I will do y. A common example that most of us already follow is: when I wake up, I will brush my teeth. This study found that the level of automaticity (how automatic an action feels) rose asymptotically (exponentially at first and then levelling off) as participants continually performed the action. This means that we see an action become the most automatic in the beginning and slowly over time it levels off. It was also shown that the amount of time to form a habit varied for each individual. Although the median time to form a habit was 66 days, individual times fell between 18 days and 254 days; complex habits take longer to form than simple habits. For most participants, missing a day of performing the habit did not negatively contribute to forming that habit. However, other studies suggest that taking breaks as long as a week (think winter break, reading week, spring break, etc.) do negatively contribute to the formation of a habit.

02 | Monitoring

In order to determine if a habit is changing for the better or for the worse, we need to quantify the habit. For example, if we want to lose weight we should be tracking the amount of calories we eat and the amount of exercise we perform. Studies have shown that there is a significant correlation between self-monitoring, weight loss, and exercise frequency. I can say from my own personal experience that it doesn’t just stop at exercise. Once we know the numbers associated with a habit, we can take small steps to improve them in the direction we want. For students who want to have better study habits, they may want to consider the Pomodoro Technique (I briefly talked about it in my 5 Practical Time Management Tips from an Engineering Student). Pomodoro’s help quantify the amount of studying a student does daily. By monitoring and slowly increasing the number of Pomodoro’s we do for an activity (we only increase if it is a goal for us to study more) the more likely we are to follow through with this habit. In Gretchen Rubin’s book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives she dedicates a whole chapter towards monitoring. Based off her findings she claims that “accurate monitoring helps determine whether a habit is worth the time, money. or energy it consumes”. Personally, I monitor my caloric intake, my study time, and the amount of weight I lift in the gym (I use different app’s to track these). At the end of the day I use an app called Habitica (one of the three essential apps I mentioned for engineers) to check off all my activities as completed for the day.

I should monitor whatever is essential to me. In that way, I ensure that my life reflects my values.
— Gretchen Rubin

03 | Convenience

The easier it is to do something, the more likely we are to do it. That’s why it’s important for us to make any habit we want to keep as convenient as possible. In Rubin’s book, she finds out her sister (Elizabeth) uses Jenny Craig to lose weight. When she discussed it with her sister, Elizabeth said that it was convenience that made it easy to stick to the diet. If you’re not familiar with Jenny Craig, it is a dieting program in which all the meals are prepackaged for you and all you have to do is warm the food up. The same rule applies to any other habit we want to keep. In order to make going to the gym easier, I pack my workout bag before I go to sleep and leave it by the front door. On my way to school the next morning I grab the bag, throw it in my back seat, and then hit the gym on the way home from school. During stressful times like exams, I find it easier to eat healthy when I cook my food in bulk and then store leftovers in the fridge to eat the next day. This way I don’t have to worry about cooking every day and can focus on studying. Here are some quick convenience ideas:

  • Want to be more social but busy with school? Make a study group
  • Want to study more but distracted by technology (netflix, games, etc)? Disconnect all the relevant technology and give it to someone to hide from you. Make it MORE convenient to study and inconvenient to have to set up the technology. I also find that cleaning my desk up before I sleep makes it more satisfying to study in the next day as opposed to if I leave all my papers lying about.
  • Want to read more but can’t find the time? Use audio books and listen while you’re brushing your teeth, or driving to school/work

It’s up to us to be creative, and to make good habits as convenient as possible. 

04 | Reward

Before reading Gretchen Rubin’s book, I was under the assumption that rewards help create strong habits. For example, I would say something like “I’ve been eating healthy all week so I deserve this cheat meal”. According to Rubin’s findings, this type of “reward teaches me that I wouldn’t do a particular activity for its own sake, but only to earn the reward; therefore, I learn to associate the activity with an imposition, a deprivation, or suffering”.  The solution to this is to find a “reward within the habit itself”. It would be better for me to say something like, “I’ve been working out consistently for a year, I’m going to spend money on creating my own custom home gym”. That’s a pretty expensive reward, but it gets the idea across. The reward reinforces the habit. Creating a home gym would help me work out even more (ideally). Another example would be, “I’ve been attending class and taking good notes so religiously, I am going to invest into an iPad or Surface so that I can continue to do that easier”. Again, the reward reinforces the habit.

05 | Conclusion

There you have it, a simple staters guide to creating good habits. We start with planning a habit, followed by monitoring it, then making it as convenient as possible, and lastly rewarding ourselves with something that reinforces the habit. Here are some examples of it all put together:

1. After dinner I will go to the gym everyday. I will record all my lifts in a notebook and track all my calories in myfitnesspal (calorie tracking app). In order to make this habit as convenient as possible, I will pack my gym clothes and showering stuff in a workout bag before I sleep and place the bag either in my car or in front of the door. This is convenient because I don’t have to worry about getting prepared to go to the gym. I just get up and leave. If I successfully go to the gym for a month I will buy new workout clothes and healthy workout snacks to keep me motivated. 

2. When I get home from school I will finish 6 pomodoro’s. Over the period of 2 weeks I will boost this number to 11 pomodoro’s and stay there consistently. To make this habit convenient, I will clean my desk after every work session, and have all necessary materials laid down and ready to go (pencils, textbooks, etc). If I study consistently for a month I will buy a new iPad to streamline my note taking process, or a new app to make me more productive. 

What tips and tricks do you have for creating and maintaining good habits?