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Brain scan

The new school year is a time for a fresh start. Students can renew interest in key subjects, faculty can kick off new workflow and we can all embrace the opportunity to grow and change for the better. So what makes those new habits stick?

It’s easy to look at colleagues who set off with the best of intentions, but then slip back into what’s easy or “how they’ve always done it.” Whether you’re planning to hit the gym every day before work, pack a lunch to save money or return quizzes within 48 hours, it’s difficult to create change and stick to it — and it’s not just a matter of willpower. Our neural pathways reflect our habits, like ruts in a road or wear patterns in a carpet that reveal the most common paths. Is that “mind over matter”? It’s tough to say — especially when the structure of the brain is complicit in the acts we follow. 

We’ve long heard that time, not willpower, is the key to forming a new habit. Collective wisdom argues that after three weeks of repetition, a habit forms—the brain can remap those neural pathways. Neurobiology and modern psychology reveal other data though, and point to more basic techniques that involve logic, reward and repeated commitment. In other words, a habit doesn’t just form, so much as result in retrospect.

For many students — and faculty — it’s easy to understand the logic behind doing work in a timely manner. 

Finish your reading assignment immediately after class and you can go outside. 

Correct students’ papers so they can review your feedback and improve on the next assignment. 

Stop smoking so you enjoy a longer life and better health.

But logic isn’t an end in itself. Instead, most people need to enjoy the result — that’s the reward. For students, that might mean spending time outside or basking the thrill of receiving a good grade and praise following a difficult project. It’s worth spending time in those moments of joy so that we remember them and appreciate the reward.

By spending time in the result of our behavior, we grow addicted to the feeling. We can encourage that healthy addiction by repeating the behavior that led to it. Repetition creates more reward, and the cycle continues. It’s not enough just to return homework quickly; instead, take the time to celebrate your students’ growth as they review and integrate your feedback. Don’t just quit smoking; take the time to spend time with family or go on a long walk or bike ride, activities you might not have enjoyed earlier. And keep doing that. When rewards create more enjoyment than the behavior that they replace, we want to continue receiving them. Our commitment to the effort, when taken in sum over time, is the new habit we so hope to form.

Posted 5:14 PM

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