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Hacking Your Habits

It’s 6:30 a.m. and your alarm rings, jolting you from a pleasant dream. Hazy visions of surfing, sunsets and laughing with your friends fade with each beep blaring from the nightstand. Your arm reaches out from under the cozy blankets and searches for your phone, blindly grasping toward the noise. What do you do next? It’s the start of school. Reality has started to set in—summer vacation is a distant memory

It’s a new school year, one that looks and feels different from years past, but it’s still school. You have to get up early and greet the day with a sense of purpose that has grown fuzzy in the lazy summer heat. You might feel a little sad, longing for the hours of leisure you’ve grown accustomed to. You might feel anxious, overwhelmed by the months of academic challenges that lie ahead. Tests, quizzes, papers, it’s all a lot to manage. The end of break and the beginning of a school year brings about a torrent of emotions, complex and sometimes conflicting. New schedules, classes, teachers and learning platforms require you to change, adapt, and yes, learn.

What if I told you there’s something else that’s there, hidden beneath the fears and the blues? Would you believe me? Right now, it might seem ridiculous to believe that something positive and life-changing could come from the beginning of a new school year. Waking up early when you’ve been sleeping in, seeing your friends on Zoom, and spending hours studying don’t sound like fun. So, what is it? What is this elusive silver lining?

It’s opportunity. I don’t mean that to sound like a corny cliché (although, I know I might be getting an eye-roll right about now). But it’s true! A fresh start gives us the opportunity to think and act in new ways (think a new sports season, a new grade, a new year). Every new school year is a gift because you can make an active decision, then follow up with action-steps that have the ability to profoundly and permanently impact your life. Sound like fun? It can be. Here’s the thing though, it might be a little different than you expect. You might be imagining grandiose changes, big shifts starting tomorrow! You might be getting fired up and even excited thinking about five a.m. wakeups, butt-kicking workouts, all-nighters studying, and a bunch of other extreme measures, and while yes, sometimes intensity is required of us; often, it’s much smaller actions that shape our lives.

Little choices, daily decisions, tiny, itty-bitty things add up to the sum of the person we are right now and who we’re heading towards becoming. Ultimately, a lot of who we are comes down to our habits. That’s right, habits. We’re creatures of habit. Most of what we do in a day is unconscious, meaning, we don’t make a decision to do it, we just do. This is great because we need our active decision-making to be freed up for learning Trigonometry, memorizing plays for the game and analyzing passages of British literature. We don’t want to be thinking about every little thing that comes along, it’s too much! Our minds would be overwhelmed and we’d burn out quickly. However, the key is to ensure that your automation system is working for you and not against you. Our habits can be our bffs or our sneakiest frenemies. How do you make your habits work for your life?

There is a ton of research and writing about habits, but the following three tips can provide you with an astounding start to building great habits this school year and beyond. Implement these few shifts in your life and you’ll maximize your chances of having an awesome school year, one that not only leads to great academic results, but more importantly, begins shaping you into the adult you want to become.

1. It’s not about results, it’s about the person you want to be- I have to admit, I’m no stranger to being destination-oriented. Show me the goal! I, like a lot of people, have lived for the top of the mountain, the light at the end of the tunnel, the trophy, the score! Does this sound like you? No problem. Just take a step back from the gold medal and listen up—You are not an achievement. You will achieve things, but building habits is about deciding who you want to be rather than what you want to accomplish. Sound too vague? Here are some quick examples of how to shift your focus from prize to process.

-Prize—“I want to get straight A’s.”

-Process-“I want to put forth my best effort in all of my classes.”

-Prize-“I want a 30 on my ACT.”

-Process-“I want to be a student who maximizes all of my opportunities to do my best on the ACT.”

It’s okay to be a little bit about the prize (shiny things are fun!), but in a results-oriented world, being a person of process will take you far.

How to habit-build- In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear does a deep dive into the power of small habits. He’s a man who has built an empire on refining his habits and he’s an optimizing machine. He suggests the following for building successful habits, all of which can be applied to students:

Add habits into habits that already exist- Huh? This means that to start new habits, you should build them into your habits that already exist (we all have them!).

Example: Want to study for Spanish everyday so that you don’t fall behind on vocabulary? Store your flashcards next to your toothbrush, and after you brush your teeth every morning and night, go through the flashcards, speaking the vocabulary words into the mirror.

Focus less on big results and more on small progress each day. 1% improvement each day will not only add up, but multiply over time. Set a goal to improve 1% each day in some way rather than attempting to change your life overnight.

Example: Want to get better at math? Instead of staying up all night one night to study for one test the next day then zombie writing your homework for the next three weeks, dedicate yourself to doing one or two extra practice problems on each troubling concept you encounter. A smaller time investment initially will add up too much more over the long run. You’ll be amazed at what ten or fifteen minutes of extra work will do for your understanding.

When you screw up, let it go and get back on track.

Habits are about what we do again and again. Repeating an action with consistency makes it stick. Yet, we all know, stuff happens, life happens. A friend wants you to go on a hike so you miss your morning lifting routine on Saturday, you have a big match, so you don’t study for that Chem test. We’re all going to make mistakes, the key is not to not make mistakes, it’s to bounce back and recover your routine as quickly as possible. In Atomic Habits, James Clear tells us that he makes a point to never mess up twice in a row. Once is one thing, but twice is establishing a new habit. So, cut yourself some slack when you don’t measure up, but get back up the next day, brush yourself off and begin again. Because remember, this isn’t about doing something, it’s about being someone.

2. Be the architect of your life and your happiness-Tap into your why and then design everything in your life to fit around it. One thing I often see is that students and parents are randomly trying, going and doing things with no idea why. If you’re trying to build great habits for a great year, it’s important to know why. Get clear on your values, your foundation as a human being, then design your life like an architect building a house, put in the stuff you need, some stuff you like and then be ready and willing to make repairs and renovations along the way.

There’s a lot to say about habits, how to build them and how they shape our lives. Don’t take for granted that a big action can save you from the little things you do each day, most of the time it can’t. The cool thing is, the little things you do are easier and end up leading to much larger results than one-time slam dunks. If you make a few tiny changes today, and keep going, this year could be your best yet! Good luck this back to school season!

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