Habits: The Ironic Secret of Grit… (If you brushed your teeth today… Read this!)

(This is part 2 of a series on the latest research on Grit.

In the first installment we examined Why Willpower Fails.)

 Did you brush your teeth this morning?



Chances are that you did and it is one habit that is almost universal in first world countries. But people have been brushing their teeth on a regular basis for a lot shorter time than you probably think.

(Stick with me this habit is the secret to grit)

During WWII, so many soldiers had awful rotting teeth that the military determined it was serious enough to label it a national security risk.

One company, Pepsodent decided to hire Claude Hopkins (one of the most successful copywriters in history) to get people to use their toothpaste. He came up with a pitch involving the film on your teeth.

Film is naturally occurring and happens to everyone. Even if you brush your teeth, the film will eventually come back. However, Hopkins decided that the film on teeth was to be demonized and produced ads that stated:

“Film. A Dangerous Coating that Robs Teeth of Whiteness.”

People did not brush their teeth until this activity satisfied a craving. Interestingly enough, the craving that brushing teeth satisfied is a rouse.

You know that tingly feeling you get when you are done brushing your teeth?

You probably think that means it’s working.

Nope. It is there simply to create a craving to do it. It has no medical or cosmetic advantage. Instead it serves as a reward.

We do not have think about much when we are brushing our teeth. The same goes with taking a shower or a bath. That is why we have many insights when we are involved in these activities.

(For more on Grit and Motivation Click Here)

Archimedes, realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision by displacing water with an object. As the legend states, he was so eager to share his discovery that he leaped out of his bathtub and ran through the streets of Syracuse naked. This simple habit of getting into a bath allowed his mind to make connections between unrelated concepts.

(To learn the Evolutionary Flaw Stops Your Students’ Thinking Click Here)

Habits allow the brain to become more efficient because fewer cognitive resources are needed when we enter a habit loop. An automatic process takes over, which allows the brain to concentrate on other information.[i]

Habits, according to research, make up about 40% of our everyday behavior.

Scientists from MIT discovered the habit loop while experimenting with rats running mazes in the 1990s.[ii] During the initial maze runs, the rats’ brains generated a significant amount of activity in the cerebral cortex, the “System 2” or thinking part of the brain.

As each rat learned, their mental activity actually decreased. Within a week, the brain structure related to memory went quiet.


Habits create an automated process that requires little actual thinking. The brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. It wants to stop thinking about basic behaviors and instead devote more time to creating and inventing.[iii]

The scientists isolated the habit loop into a three- step loop. Each habits contains all of the following:

  1. Cue – Some trigger tells brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use

  2. Routine – A routine can be physical, mental, emotional,

  3. Reward – Something pleasurable that makes the habit worth remembering

The cue is something that sends the brain into an unconsciously driven process that can be internal or external. Internally, the cue could be a thought or a feeling. Externally, the cue can be the environment, a person, or a situation.

Simply put, the cue initiates the routine and the routine is the behavior that leads to the reward.

A routine could be:

  1. Physical (ex: eating a donut)
  2. Cognitive (ex: remembering when taking a test)
  3. Emotional (ex: this person makes me feel happy or anxious)

The reward triggers a dopamine rush in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical that makes us happy for a short period of time and our body craves dopamine.  It initiates the “toward” response in the brain.

Similar to routines, rewards can also be physical (sugar), cognitive (interesting fact), or emotional (watching a movie is relaxing).

The kicker is that over time this loop becomes more and more automatic. Basically, the brain stops participating in the decision making process.

The problem is that brains can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits. Unless you deliberately fight a habit with new routines, a pattern will unfold automatically without conscious thinking.[iv]

(For more on Growth Mindset Feedback Click Here)

(For more on the Tell Tale Sign of a Growth Mindset Click Here)

Collaborating scientists from Duke, Harvard, UCLA, Penn, USC, and Princeton concluded that cues can be anything.

Cues range from visual triggers – like a candy bar commercial- to a certain place, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts or the company of certain people (including you as a teacher).

Habits can emerge outside our consciousness and without our permission.  But they can be reshaped by fiddling with various parts of the loop.

Consider this…

The habits for the mice to press the lever was so strong that when the food was switched with poison of the floor around the lever was electrified… the mice couldn’t help themselves.  Their brain refused to “unlearn the habit”.

(To Get Grit Building Worksheets scientifically proven to work… )

Habits are actually stored in the region of the brain known as the basal ganglia. This is almost in the center of the brain. When we enter a habit loop, the activity in the basal ganglia increases and the activity in the prefrontal cortex (System 2) decreases.

When the brain enters the habit loop the brain activity increases on the cue (here we go) and then again on the reward (the brain shakes it self off to make sure everything is safe). However, during the routine it is quiet.

As previously mentioned, this frees up cognitive resources for the brain to use on other information and thoughts. Habits are absolutely necessary because without them our brains would shut down because they would be overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life.

But how important is this to actual student success?


More Important than Self Control

Baumeister and two other researchers coded and analyzed a large set of published and unpublished studies on people who measure high on self control. They coded their behaviors into two categories: controlled or automatic. Their hypothesis was that people would tend to use self control in their behaviors that most needed control. Yet, the found the opposite was true. People with high self-control were more effected by their behaviors that were automatic. Basically, their habits helped them overcome ego depletions.

Yet, they found the opposite was true. People with high self-control were more effected by their behaviors that were automatic. Basically, their habits helped them overcome ego depletion.

Building good habits has been found to have a stronger connection to meeting goals than strictly using self-control in school as well.

Angela Duckworth discovered that habits made it easier to maintain self-control for eating healthy snacks, exercising, consistent sleep, studying, homework completion, meditation practice goals, grade point average, and first-year college persistence.[v] As the authors conclude from the study,

“Collectively, these results suggest that beneficial habits-perhaps more so than effortful inhibition-are an important factor linking self-control with positive life outcomes.”  

The secret is that habits are automatic, so they require less energy. So you should not preach better willpower to students instead you should help them develop good habits.

One of the easiest ways to do this is through the power of rituals.

Francesca Gino, Harvard professor and a world renowned expert on rituals and routines, studied the impact of rituals on performance.

“What we studied in this project was whether these rituals are really of beneficial effect in terms of bringing you confidence and potentially impacting your performance positively. That is actually what we found.”

Rituals Kill Procrastination

It seems that the proper role for the prefrontal cortex is to decide what routine to perform and then get out of the way.

“ What we find is that if you engage in a ritual prior to a potentially high anxiety task, like singing in public or solving difficult math problems, you end up being calmer by the time you approach the task, and more confident in what you’re about to do. As a result of that, you actually perform better.”[vi]

Your brain will have less to worry about because rituals represent familiarity. Your brain doesn’t’ focus on the anxiety but rather on the familiar routine that you are performing. The brain likes the familiar because familiar means safety.

Teaching students rituals, habits, and routines actually allows them to do better when they have to perform. It gives them less to think about and saves room on their mental stage.

The third installment will present practical ways to use this knowledge in your classroom.

This is a Three Part Series on Grit, Willpower, and Habits


[i] Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

[ii] McKay, B., & McKay, K. (2012, November 10). Unlocking the Science of Habits: How to Hack the Habit Loop & Become the Man You Want to Be. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/11/20/power-of-habits/

[iii] Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

[iv] Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

[v] Duckworth, A., & Galla, B. (2015). More Than Resisting Temptation: Beneficial Habits Mediate the Relationship Between Self-Control and Positive Life Outcomes. Journal of Personal Social Psychology.

[vi] Barker, E. (2013, June 28). Harvard professor Francesca Gino explains how to be a better person. Retrieved January 4, 2015, from http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2013/06/francesca-gino/


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