Change is hard, sometimes tweaking our habits can help

Why is change so hard? 

Why, when our minds can be so clear on the direction we want to go and the actions we want to take. We can be clear that we want change, and what that change is, yet somehow we fall back into old patterns. Habits.

I’m not talking about changing others, or changing the world. Though often I sure wish I had that power. No, I’m talking about changing myself. Changing the way I do things.  The changes I want to make in how I show up so that things feel better. Flow more smoothly. Yield more satisfying results.

If you are someone who thinks about self-improvement too, then this post is for you

In my work as a professional learning facilitator, I work with a lot of educators who want to make changes in their teaching practice and school. Some want to give students more voice and choice. Others want to create learning that is more engaging for students. And most want to identify and disrupt inequitable systems and practices – in their own classroom and in their school.

And we all know that making these changes is hard.

In many cases, there are a lot of forces keeping the status quo in place. Things like school schedules, grading and reporting practices, and even public sentiment. Or a global pandemic. Often, these “systemic forces” work against the changes that we are trying to make. These constraints take significant focus and sustained effort to shift and this discussion of habit hacking is less relevant here. And even so, many of these educators persist to make headway and improve the quality of learning in their classroom and school.

Yet in other cases, even with some of these constraints removed, we have a hard time making a change. We see and understand the change we want to make, we are clear on why it’s worth it, and there don’t seem to be any significant barriers. We have control! Yet we make only small, inconsistent, unsustainable progress toward these goals. And it’s not for a lack of effort.

How habits might be key to change

I think I might have stumbled onto some information that might help us stick with the change process. One key might be to make small, intentional shifts in our daily habits. 

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear discusses how micro-shifts in our daily habits can change our trajectory significantly over time. And he also noted that:

And our systems are made up of our habits. The small, daily, subconscious acts that make up most of our behavior. Our operating system.

So it’s not that our goals aren’t important —  they are. It’s that they are insufficient. It’s that we’re on autopilot most of the time —  which is a very good thing from an evolutionary standpoint. It helps us conserve energy. It’s our amazing brain doing the amazing things it does to help us be the amazing human being that we are.

Except when autopilot gets in the way of us making the changes we’re seeking. Because we fall back on our subconscious habits. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

Getting curious about our patterns

You are probably pretty clear on your goals. But how much do you know about your systems? Those constellations of habits that make up the way things shake out?

The first step in adjusting our habits is becoming aware of them. What are the ways we are habitually showing up in our lives? Where are the patterns in our behavior? We can’t adjust something unless we’re aware of it.

When I was teaching sixth grade, one of my goals was to share power with my students. But in order to achieve that goal, I needed self-awareness. I needed to understand how power was showing up in my classroom and in my practice. And I needed to be able to see the habits that made up the system of power in my classroom. What were the small ways that I was — or wasn’t —sharing power?

With your goal in mind, consider your practice. How do you interact with students in your classroom? What are the patterns of behavior you notice? How do you “usually” do things?

Are there actions that you take each day, phrases that you use? Where are you on autopilot?

Once we have revealed some of this unconscious behavior to ourselves, it’s easier to begin to think about how to shift it.

Sometimes engaging others — colleagues or even our students — can help us see our blind spots. What if you and your students investigated the habits of your classroom together? What might you discover? It may be helpful to focus on routines and rhythms of daily life. What happens at the beginning of class? At the end? What are your goals for these times?

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Dialing it in: focus is key, small is better.

Now that we can see our patterns, it’s time to think about which habits we have control over and are also getting in the way of our goals. 

Part of sharing power with my students means giving them more autonomy and responsibility in the day to day operations of our classroom. So I know that I want my students to have more voice and choice, but notice that I am in the habit of planning and facilitating each morning meeting, it seems quicker and easier.  Now I’ve discovered one of the habits that could be getting in the way.

We will probably notice all sorts of habitual patterns in our behavior and in the systems we’re part of. Some of these patterns will be super helpful. Others will be getting in the way of the changes we want to make. Some will be both — it’s quicker and easier if I plan morning meeting, but it also doesn’t give my students a chance to lead. So we need to sift through these insights to figure out what might make the most impact.

Then choose. The key here is that we want to go small. Big change is hard. Small change is less hard. We want to identify one habitual pattern that we want to shift to bring our teaching practice closer to our goals. 

Building systems for success

Once we’ve zeroed in on the shift we want to make, it’s time to create a new pattern. This is hard. This takes effort. This chafes against what we’re used to. Our brain will tell us it’s easier and faster if we just do it the old way. (It’s not wrong, that smart brain!) That’s ok. Keep going. Remember that these small habits make up our system, and “we don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.”  (Thanks again, James.) So let’s tune those systems!

So if I want my students to gradually take over planning and running morning meetings to give them more voice and choice, I need to scaffold the process. I’ll need to teach them how I plan the meeting, selecting a greeting, share topic, and activity. We’ll need to compile a list of all the greetings, shares, and games we know. I may need to create a planning form and calendar, and coach and remind them to use these tools. It will take time. It might take a couple of weeks to build the systems, and a few more weeks of practicing before it’s happening smoothly and relatively effortlessly. But this gradual release of responsibility will help them gain power, and it will help me share power.

Over time, together, we will develop a new habitual pattern: students in this classroom plan and lead our morning meeting. We share power in this space. And once we’ve figured out this new habit, we can look for another small habit to tweak to continue to pursue sharing power.

A practice, not a perfect

Teaching is a practice – not a perfect. So is changing our habits. Once we’ve become aware of a habit pattern, and become intentional about why and how we want to shift it, change becomes more possible. Not easy, but doable.

In habit changes, consistency trumps intensity, so making small, wobbly, persistent progress toward a new habit is much more effective than making grand and short-lived efforts toward change. Sometimes keeping track of our progress helps us persist (and even celebrate) in change.

Change is hard. And we can change.

What habit shifts might help you reach your goals for improving your teaching practice?

9 thoughts on “Change is hard, sometimes tweaking our habits can help”

  1. Changing life-style or habits it’s too difficult for everyone but it definitely required for healthy life.

    Thanks Emily Hoyler for sharing great content and this will definitely help many people.

  2. Great Article. Thanks for sharing. I have been searching for such an informative post since many days and it seems my search just ended here. Good work. Keep posting.

  3. To grow up in life we have to change our lifestyle and habits. I have read your blog it is really incredible. I will surely try to implement the things you have mentioned in your blog and would love to read this type of blog from you in future as well.

What do you think?