Willpower Alone Won’t Make that Goal Happen

I signed up for the Next Big Idea Club because I wanted to be introduced to books and ideas that may not have normally come my way. This latest shipment included a book that I definitely would not have purchased in the store.

Why wouldn’t I have purchased it in the store? Well, I am horrible at establishing good habits. I can’t seem to keep up with most of what I start – running is a good example. I had actually gotten to the point of finishing 6 or 7 miles without dying and then, BAM, just quit. I don’t know why. So the idea of picking up a book on habits just wouldn’t have been on my radar.

But luckily it was on NBIC’s radar!

This book has taught me so much about how habits are formed, and how to influence those habits (and how to get my fit lifestyle back on track!). As Wood describes it, “Habits make the wildly challenging and difficult seem easy and safe.” Because habits are a kind of action that is “relatively insensitive to rewards,” it is able to run in the background while the conscious mind is still deciding to do something else.

As I read her book, I was thinking… teachers need to know this stuff!! How much better can I be as a teacher by understanding why some routines are successful and others are not when it comes to teaching and learning. And to life!

Cue and Response

Habits are all about cue and response. This is a crucially important piece of information. We talk about goal setting a lot, and self-control (aka grit) to meet those goals, but as it turns out, self-control really has no part in habits. Woods explains:

Goals can orient you to build a habit, but your desires don’t make habits work. Actually, your habit self would benefit if “you” just got out of the way.

Wendy Wood

Wood gives a lot of examples to support this claim. She talks about all the public service campaigns to get people to eat more fruits and veggies; to stop smoking; or to start exercising. Let’s be real – they don’t change our behavior, even though we know that they are important. Even when we swear that this is the year the gym will actually be part of our routine, most of us fail to carry it out. Why?

Cues and responses. The biggest cue of which is our surroundings. Without realizing it, our surroundings drastically influence our behavior. US soldiers in Vietnam had a drug problem. The drug was heroin, and the problem was big. Not only was it readily available in Vietnam, but it served an immediate need of taking the edge off a stressful situation. The government was concerned. How would these drug-addicted soldiers re-acclimate to civilized society?

After being sent to a week detox in Vietnam, soldiers were sent home and monitored. Only 5% started using again. Contrast that with the average drug relapse rate of 40-60% and it’s quite startling. Even unbelievable. So why didn’t they start using again? Change of scenery. The visual cues were no longer present, so the habit was disrupted. It’s why people who need to lose weight are told to rid their pantry of the sweet delicacies that they crave, or a prisoner can seem completely reformed, but quickly fall back into a life of crime when returned home.

Cue and response is important for students. If students always learn math in room 5, and then are moved to room 2 for a test, the disruption will impact habits.The habit to check over the work twice, or to always reduce fractions, could be impacted. Likewise, if a student gets used to giving all green flyers to his parents for a signature, and one week the green paper is out and pink paper is used, there may be less signatures turned in the next day because the visual cue was disrupted.


Visual cues aren’t the only thing to impact habit. Repetition is a big one, too, and probably the one we are most familiar with. If we can just get to the gym every day, the repetition should create a habit… and yet, with my running, I was running multiple times a week and it still didn’t become a habit. Why?

Because repetition isn’t enough. Repetition needs to be coupled with situational control. In other words, the trips to the gym, or to start running, need to be set regularly. People who are gym addicts usually go at the same time every day. Runners hit the streets right after they wake up, or when they get home. They don’t wake up each day and have to figure out when to go, which then requires the conscious mind to step in and make decisions. When we remove the conscious mind from the equation, it actually changes our experience of the activity by making it seem easier.

If there is a repetitive behavior that needs to be ended, Wood recommends creating friction. For smokers, it was easy to buy a pack when vending machines were everywhere. Now that they can only be purchased by asking a clerk to get the pack from behind the counter, and most places don’t allow public smoking, there has been a huge reduction in smokers in the United States. Barriers work a lot more than willpower!

If we want students to be responsible for turning in their assignments every day, then repetition is a great structure. Every day at 8am, assignments are collected. Make it even easier and add cues and responses. Every day at 8am, the red basket will be set on the table in which to place the assignments. If students know that lunch is at 11:00 every day, they will probably get restless a few minutes prior… have an assembly and lunch gets changed to 11:30am? Don’t be surprised if they’re still acting squirrelly at 10:58am. Want to disrupt that behavior? Hide the clock. Habits are like that!


A habit is actually established when it is insensitive to reward. Maybe we initially ran for the medals at events, but now we just run because it’s how each day has started for five years and why stop now? Or we were rewarded with a cash prize for losing weight, but the cash prize was a one time event and the weight quickly returns. Dopamine is a fickle beast!

“To our conscious minds, larger rewards and more certain rewards – ones that we now are coming – are motivating. But habits thrive on uncertainty.” Don’t believe me? How often do you check your phone every day? 25, 50, 100 times? It’s a habit… some people call it an addiction. And yet how often are you rewarded with an interesting tweet or email or funny Reddit post? It’s the uncertainty of the reward that keeps us checking.

This is why grades aren’t motivational for many students, or token reward systems in classrooms. It may appeal to the conscious mind in the beginning, but it doesn’t help students develop a habit of reading before bed every night. Neither does collecting gold star stickers for signed reading logs. The uncertain reward of reaching a juicy part in the story could do it, though, if it was a book that meets the student’s interest.


Variety is the spice of life… but habits are bland and don’t like variety. Consistency is key to habit formation. Running at 6am every day is likely to become a habit. Running at 6am one day, noon the next, and then skipping two days is not going to make it stick.

And when trying to establish a new habit, connecting it to existing cues is an easier way to make it automated. So you’ve got the running set at 6am and it’s working for you? Add on eating a banana the moment you’re finished with the run. Now you’re adding nutrition to the routine. Stacking, as it’s called, takes advantage of the automaticity already in place.

Swapping also takes advantage of the automaticity but it swaps one behavior for another. Bananas have too much sugar? Swap it for an orange but don’t stop the process of eating the fruit right when the run finishes.

This was my weakness as a teacher. I thought students craved variety. I thought routines would diminish my star power. In reality, those routines help students create habits. And those habits free up the conscious mind to focus on what’s important – the new learning concepts. Once they know to turn in assignments to the red basket, adding a short “bellringer” activity to the mix becomes easy. Stack it on! No longer need the basket for turn in? Awesome. Swap it for a Google Form that tells you how they are feeling about the current learning concept.


An interesting thing about habits. Wood explains that, in times of stress, there’s actually a boost in habit performance. Habits are the safe harbors for our brain. As our consciousness deals with mental drain, the habits kick in and keep us moving. One study showed that corporate execs, when facing major business decisions that leave them anxious and under the gun, are more likely to avoid exploring new innovations. Instead, habit kicks in and the decision is to continue the status quo.

Teachers and students have similar responses. When a student falls behind, and is struggling with course content, they may repeat past behaviors, even though they are ineffective. Why not come in for lunch tutoring, you ask them. Because every day at 11:00, it is time for lunch and that’s the habit so the student goes to lunch. As a result, the teacher thinks the student doesn’t care enough to take care of the situation. In reality, the habit brain is taking care of the conscious brain by removing the need for a decision. In situations like this, habit discontinuity is needed. An external force (such as a teacher requirement to come in at lunch) has to shake up the brain and kick the conscious mind into gear.

Heed the Warning

Habits are awesome, but beware… repetition may strengthen our tendency to act, but it also weakens the sensation of that act. If you eat turkey every day for lunch, you may no longer find that you enjoy the taste. Running every day is great, but if it’s always the same scenery, it may not trigger that dopamine release you used to receive. Routines are great, but this is not….

Balance is key! Build the habits for the behavioral routines, and spend the conscious energy on the learning! Your students will thank you for it!

Understanding habits normalizes the trials of changing behavior. The distance between repeated failure and enduring, successful change is not marked by personal fortitude or determination…Instead, you cover that distance through simple steps…to encourage enjoyable actions that meet your long-term goals… This is the promise of a habit life well lived.

Wendy Wood

One Comment on “Willpower Alone Won’t Make that Goal Happen

  1. Pingback: The Backwards Brain Bicycle | Laura K Spencer

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