Grit, Willpower and The Golden Rule of Habit Change

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on Grit.

Environmental Cues

When it comes to habits, the frame or context of the situation is very important. Remember: Habits are stored in the Basal Ganglia which is a very primal part of the brain.  Environment cues stimulate the basal ganglia (think about how smells cause an instant memory or a song from high school brings you back to that time).


  • Your classroom should represent the cue that automate a habit loop in the brain of the students as soon as they walk through the door.
  • It is essential to conduct the initial teaching and training in the classroom where they will be required to perform the habit loop.

Due to the encoding specificity principle,  – memory works best when the context during testing matches the context during learning,[i] – you should teach the habit in the same place you expect the habit to continue.

(For more on Why an Evolutionary Flaw Stops Students Click Here)

The Doorway Effect


In much the same way, walking through your classroom doorway induces the “doorway effect,” which according to Scientific American:

“Radvansky and colleagues call this sort of memory representation an ‘event model,’ and propose that walking through a doorway is a good time to purge your event models because whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant now that you have changed venues.”[ii]

(Get your Grit Worksheets Here)

On the first day or school, you need to establish the entrance routine as you see fit. My entrance routine was:

  1. Enter silently
  2. Sit down at your seat
  3. Take out notebook
  4. Look at board for written warm-up instructions
  5. Begin warm-up

Remember to TIPP


It is important to remember that the initial loop has to be a very positive experience. A key acronym to remember when teaching routines and behaviors is TIPP.

Teach It – Describe the routine

Imprint It – Model the routine

Practice It – Practice the routine

Praise It – Praise the routine

We practice the routine and then “clap it up” when we get it correct (even clapping for yourself releases dopamine).

This is how all routines should be taught to make them habits. It is also important that the feedback is immediate. If they don’t do it correctly, stop them, break state, and begin again from the cue.

Instant Activities

There are many names for warm-ups including “Instant activity.”

This is an educational intervention that is used to engage students immediately upon entering the classroom.

They can be one or more of the following:

  • Review of previous course material
  • Preview of upcoming information
  • Management technique for organizing the class

“To achieve success with an instant activity, the tasks should be clear, simple, and based on students’ prior knowledge and/or skills.

For example, the teacher could engage students as they enter class by:

  • asking the students to formulate questions based on the assigned readings for that class period and having peers answer them
  • administering an informal pre-test on the lesson’s key concepts
  • allowing students to work in small groups to answer teacher-directed questions that have been written on the board,
  • encouraging students to reflect on their own personal experiences regarding the day’s topic as a catalyst for in-class discussion and subsequent learning of subject matter to be introduced.[iii]

Initiating the warm-up should be automatic by week 2 or 3 of school year. The students should understand that as soon as they break the threshold in your classroom that they should begin with the warm-up. There are a few ways that you can initiate automatic warm-ups.

First, it is always written or projected on the board and the students read and begin.

Second, there is a folder or basket with warm-ups in there that immediately pick up when they enter the room. These are usually the easiest.

If no class is in there before, you can even have the warm-up waiting on their desk for their arrival. Pick one and use it. You can also alternate, but making sure that they begin each class in this manner will ensure a smooth start.


Breaking Bad Habits

We naturally try to find “why” students have bad habits. Teachers try to “untie” what is already happening. Unfortunately, by looking for connections in the past to change people we actually deepen the connection to the behavior that we want to replace. According to Dr. David Rock, founder of the Neuroleadership Institute,

“Looking for the source of a habit literally creates more connections to that habit.”

He suggests a better way: leave the wiring of the behavior where it is and focus on the creation of new circuits.[iv]

Concentrating on new wiring is a solution focused approach that will get you results in the classroom. Every thought, word, new idea, what we eat, what we do for exercise, and how we define ourselves helps fine tune the pathways in our brain. Keep these principles in mind, when you are trying to help students form new habits:

  1. Tell them what to do vs. What not to do


Before his death in 2013 from ALS, Daniel Wegner was one of the most prolific scientists that studied thought suppression and self control. In his studies, participants are asked to try hard not to think about something, such as a white bear, or food, or a stereotype. This proved extremely difficult. More important, the moment one stops trying to suppress a thought, the thought comes flooding in and becomes even harder to banish.[v]


Essentially, Wegner creates minor obsessions by instructing people not to obsess. This “ironic” process of mental control happens because when trying to influence thought, your System 2 sets up an explicit goal. When a person pursues a goal, part of your brain is tasked with monitoring progress.

So when your brain asks, “Did I think of a white bear?” the very act of monitoring for the absence of the thought introduces the thought. The person must try even harder to divert consciousness.

As we have seen, controlled processes (like self-control) tire quickly and the inexhaustible automatic processes reign supreme. Therefore, attempting to remove an unpleasant thought can guarantee that it will not happen.

Instead of telling your students, what you don’t want them to do, explain what you would like them to do. Then have them write it down, tell others, and do it. This is called “spreading activation.” These all use different parts of the brain and by doing all three you are increasing the chance that they will oblige.


  1. New habits take time but not all that much

If you heed the advice above, then you will be glad to know that new dendrites in the brain emerge just an hour after stimulation. In other words, your brain is trying to automate the process very quickly.


  1. Positive Feedback is Essential

We mentioned the importance of positive feedback earlier in this book. However, it is important to use feedback to make actions a habit. “The Brain needs to see a happy face and hear occasional laughter to cement its neural circuitry. That encouraging sound of Yes! Good! That’s it! Helps mark a synapse for preservation instead of being pruned. Positive feedback is absolutely necessary for solidifying long term connections.”[vi] Any pathways that people do not use for a while become less connected. Hardwiring insights requires that we continually make connections to them.

  1. WOOP There it Is

We have all heard about harnessing the power of positive thinking when it comes to setting goals. Unfortunately, thinking positively and fantasizing about the future have only led to decreased performance. However, there is a way for your students to set goals that actually will benefit them.   It is called Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions. What does that mean?

“Mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) entails mental contrasting a desired future with relevant obstacles of reality and forming implementation intentions (if–then plans) specifying when and where to overcome those obstacles.”[vii] Basically, you set your goal, you define what the outcome would be, you define your obstacles, and then you plan for how you will overcome those obstacles. Gabriele Oettingen has been studying goal setting for over 20 years and she has (thankfully) simplified this process to WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan).

The findings of the latest study from Oettingen and Angela Duckworth, suggests that this strategy “holds considerable promise for helping disadvantaged middle school children improve their academic performance.”[viii] Let’s break down the basics.

Wish: First, define your goal. (Ex: I want to get better homework grades)

Outcome: The best outcome that would result from accomplishing your goal. How would the outcome make you feel? Let your mind go and imagine this outcome. (Ex: Better homework grades would allow me to get better grades and not have to study so much for tests)

Obstacles: What obstacles are you likely to face on the way to achieving your goal? (ex: I get distracted by the TV when I am trying to do my homework.)

Plan: What can you do to overcome your obstacle? Name one action you can take or thought you can have. Make an if/then plan and imagine it.

If / When _________(obstacle), then I will __________ (action to overcome obstacle)[ix].

(Ex: When I am distracted by the TV, I will turn it off or move to another room)

As I write this, it is the first week of January and as usual people are making New Year’s Resolutions. Hopefully, they take the time to consider that just making a goal without the OOP will most likely lead to a disappointment in February.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change

         We end this chapter with what may be the most important aspect of Grit, Willpower, and Habits; The Golden Rule of Habit Change.

As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit,

“Habits – even once they are rooted in our minds – aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how.”

While he admits that change might not be fast and it is definitely not easy, he believes that with time and effort almost any habit can be reshaped. Keep in mind, that habits cannot be destroyed, but they can be replaced. His Golden Rule of Habit is to keep the same cue and the same reward, but replace the routine.

  1. Identify the Routine – What is the routine that you want to change? For teaching purposes we will use the simple routine of calling out in class.
  1. Experiment with different rewards. All behaviors, whether desirable or undesirable, can be categorized by the payoff that is rewarded to the student for that behavior. Behaviors aren’t random. Students may not even be aware of the reasons behind their behaviors, but the reason is the payoff. A payoff means that you get what you want.

SEAT, is a very hand acronym to remember when trying to determine why a behavior is occurring.

  • Because it feels good (Sensory)
  • To get out of something (Escape)
  • To get attention (Attention)
  • To get something (Tangible)

The tricky part is that we are often not conscious of the rewards that drive our behavior. Calling out in class could satisfy at least three of the rewards described above. Which one does the student seem most likely to want?

  1. Isolate the Cue. When does the student call out? If you keep track of when they do this over a few class periods, you will identify what is triggering their urge.
  2. Have a plan. Use implementation intentions (IF____ Then_____). To plan a course of action to create a better habit for the student.

Willpower and Habits will most likely be heavily researched in the future because of how much of an impact they have on everyday life. Just like Jimmy, it would be better to create better habits than just rely on pure self control.

[i] Brenner, C., & Zacks, J. (2011, December 11). Why Walking through a Doorway Makes You Forget. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from

[ii] Brenner, C., & Zacks, J. (2011, December 11). Why Walking through a Doorway Makes You Forget. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from

[iii] Bulger, S., Mohr, D., & Walls, R. (1996). Stack the Deck in Favor of Your Students by Using the Four Aces of Effective Teaching. Journal of Effective Teaching.

[iv] Rock, D. (2007). Quiet Leadership: Six steps to transforming performance at work. HarperBusiness. p. 20 -21

[v] Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books.

[vi]Rock, D. (2007). Quiet Leadership: Six steps to transforming performance at work.

[vii] Duckworth, A., Kirby, T., Gollwitzer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2013). From Fantasy to Action: Mental Contrasting With Implementation Intentions (MCII) Improves Academic Performance in Children. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 745-753.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab is a non-profit bridging the science of character development with the daily work of teaching so all kids can fulfill their potential.

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