By Luke McKenna


Hi Ho, Hi Ho- it’s back to school we go.

I have always enjoyed the start of the school year- there’s a bit of a buzz and fresh enthusiasm in the air, and it’s always good to have a few days to get some learning and preparation in before the students come back.

There’s new students to meet, new staff to greet and induct, a renewed sense of purpose, a spring in the step and some new goals to reach towards.

But how do we keep up the motivation and commitment long enough to bring those goals to fruition? And the even harder question- how can we keep students on track long enough for them to achieve the goals they have set for themselves?

The truth is- we don’t. The shine will wear off. Things get hard. People lose focus. The school term tends to take a toll on staff and students. People get tired. It’s happened before and it will happen again. But it’s not all doom and gloom…

My older brother always tells me that “it’s all about set ups”. Setting things up properly at the start allows us to keep building on them. Whether it is teaching students a new concept, setting up a classroom for success, or building a house- we need to get the foundation right first- because “it’s all about set ups”.

So how does this apply to educators and students at the start of 2016? It’s all about setting up the right habits. In order to do this we need to know a little about the habit loop.

Here’s what I’ve learned…

Only 20 percent of dieters are able to keep off the lost weight for any extended length of time (Ansel, 2009). Most people struggle with maintaining the stamina required to keep striving for goals. Research on mental contrasting and implementation intentions has shed some light on this topic for me in this regard, but the focus of the first few weeks of school is setting up the right habits. While it’s easy to do the right things early in term 1, we cannot rely on willpower in order to stick to good habits as time goes on and things get harder. Research has shown that over time, our willpower can become used up, or depleted, much like tired muscles (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012).

Relying on willpower and a dose of motivation, goal setting or even a New Year’s resolution doesn’t work in most cases. We need more than this – and so do the students that we teach.

If we want to stick with the behaviours that will lead to positive results in our lives, we must intentionally cultivate good habits. Habits are “the choices all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often everyday” (Duhigg, 2013).

Many of the decisions we make each day are habitual. One study suggests that habits account for approximately 45 percent of our everyday actions (Wood, Quinn, & Kashy, 2002). The great thing is that habits make our life easier as we don’t need to invest a lot of energy and effort into doing them. In fact, when a habit emerges, our brain stops fully participating in decision making (Duhigg, 2013). William James believed that “we should make our nervous system our ally, instead of our enemy” (James, 1984)

So it’s all about setting ourselves up with habits that are working for us, not against us.

In order to do this, we must understand and apply the habit loop.





Our habits can be broken into three steps:

1.  The CUE: the event that starts or triggers the habit (cues could include time of day, other people, a location, a preceding event or an emotional state).

2.  The ROUTINE: the behaviour that you perform (the habit itself).

3.  The REWARD: the benefit that is associated with the behaviour.



When we want to begin a new habit or cease an existing one, we use the habit loop. For example, if I would like to meditate more regularly (this is step 2, the routine), I must find an appropriate trigger. For example, when I put the keys in the ignition of my car each morning (this is step 1, the cue), I will meditate for one minute.


New habits that we create should be small and easy to follow, so that we can achieve small wins and begin to strengthen the habit loop.


Apply the habit loop to maintain your desired routines and behaviours when things get hard this year.

a)  Decide on the routines and behaviours that you need to develop to set you up for success.

b)  Identify an existing cue to which you could attach your desired behaviour.

c)  Enjoy the benefit that is associated with your desired behaviour.


It’s all about set ups- how will you set yourself up with habits that work for you in 2016?

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