Changing Habits, Creating Positive Habits

This is another post on habits, this time focusing on changing habits. In an earlier post, I looked at automaticity (especially habits). They are important not only for the way they can facilitate or block efforts to work towards goals, but also because what we do or don’t do has a great coloring influence on how we assess what kind of a person we are.

In this post I’d like to look a little at habit change and the formation of positive habits. As you know if you’ve read my other postings on habits and motivation, habits are notoriously difficult to change. There seems to be a sequence of stages associated with habit change according to Prochaska in his  Transtheoretical Model. In addition, a change in habit usually requires great focused effort and/or changes in the environment that cues the habitual response. Thus, changing bad habits requires identifying them, understanding the environmental cues for the behavior, attending to them, taking some sort of action to either avoid the cue or control the response, and continuing to self-monitor for as long as is necessary to cement the behavioral change. It’s a lot to ask of a person so it makes sense that you really have to want to make the change to accomplish it and it requires considerable cognitive resources.

But not all habit management consists of breaking bad habits. For learning, especially learning with technology, the establishment of positive habits should be an explicit goal. A new environment offers a unique opportunity to establish learning-positive behaviors, one that should be seized. Loeher and Schwartz in their 2003 book The Power of Full Engagement refer to this process as establishing positive rituals.

“Positive energy rituals are powerful on three levels. They help us to insure that we effectively manage energy in the service of whatever mission we are on. They reduce the need to rely on our limited conscious will and discipline to take action. Finally, rituals are a powerful means by which to translate our values and priorities into action–to embody what matters most to us in our everyday behaviors” (pg. 166).

In the last few years, implementation intentions have been suggested as a reasonably successful means of establishing positive new  habits (certainly much more effective than just positive intentions).  Implementation intentions are specific action plans that clearly identify the timing, environment and action for behavioral goals (Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998). By linking an action with time cues and environmental cues connections are created. These time and place connections later serve to trigger the desired action. In their program, Loeher and Schwartz emphasize specificity of timing and precision of behavior for a thirty to sixty-day acquisition period. Gollwitzer, Wieber, Myers, & McCrea (2010)  describe the benefits of using implementation intentions, which they say can go a long way to bring about a “medium to large” improvement in goal achievement (though with some personality types not benefiting as much). They stress the need to make implementation intention statements as specific as possible by making if-then statements (If situation Y arises, then I will initiate behavior Z) to highlight what specific action must be taken under what specific circumstances–the when, where, and how a person intends to realize a goal.

Changing habits and establishing effective new ones can be an effective route toward more successful learning or training. Particularly regarding language learning in Japan we can find many bad habits that need to be addressed and many learners who are in need of more effective learning behaviors. As learners begin to do do more of their language learning in front of a computer or via hand-held devices instead of in rows in classrooms, an opportunity is presenting itself for real change.

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