How to develop good study habits

Study habits: A habit is an automatic behaviour resulting from consistent repetition. Not one-off studying done during times of great inspiration (or desperation)

FOR PSYCHOLOGISTS AND RESEARCHERS, HABIT FORMATION CAN BE EXPLAINED BY A LOOP BETWEEN THREE IMPORTANT PARTS: THE CUE, THE BEHAVIOUR, AND THE REWARD.

You might have been lectured about the importance of good study habits a million times over. From your teachers, your parents, your tutors, or every time a middle-aged guest visits your school and gives a talk during general assembly – usually with a brightly-coloured Powerpoint with a chunk-full of pop culture references in an awkward attempt to relate to high school students.

Perhaps after the talk (that is if you actually listened), you felt motivated and managed to finish loads of course work during study period. Suddenly you feel as if you have gotten your entire life together and that you can accomplish anything and everything.

But at the very next day, you spend the entire study period on your phone, lazily scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed while that little voice at the back of your mind asks “What happened to me?” Deep inside you want to study again, you want to feel great about yourself again, but it’s just so hard to start.

And this is why developing a good study habit is important.

A habit is an automatic behaviour resulting from consistent repetition.

Consistent repetition. Therefore the one-off studying we do during times of great inspiration (or desperation) are therefore not enough to say we have good study habits. Now, it’s important to point out that there is no magical number of repetitions until a behaviour develops into a habit. In a scientific experiment about habit formation, the results ranged from 18 up to 254 days. It is clear that the speed of habit formation and development differs from person to person. So do not worry if you feel did not reach a certain deadline. Give yourself so time and it will happen eventually.

For psychologists and researchers, habit formation can be explained by a loop between three important parts: the cue, the behaviour, and the reward.

The cue is a stimulus – it can be an object, an emotion, a place, etc – that triggers a behaviour.

The second part, the behaviour, is how we respond to a cue.

And finally, the reward is what makes us repeat the behaviour.

When we repeat a particular behaviour, the links between the cue, the behaviour, and the reward are strengthened in our minds. And once these links become strong enough through repetition, the behaviour then becomes automatic – meaning it becomes more efficient, and requiring less effort to do.

In the scenario described above, the feeling of motivation that we got from listening to the talk is the cue, which drives us to study (the behaviour). The great feeling of accomplishment is then our reward, which if you think about it, is what makes studying worth it. Ideally, if this cycle is repeated enough, it will take less and less effort to start studying, and might even come to a point where we just start studying without know it!

But since the feeling of inspiration (the cue) is gone the following day, we didn’t study and we did not get rewarded by the feeling of accomplishment. And since the behaviour of studying has not been consistently repeated, it does not become a habit.

What can we do make sure studying becomes a habit?

First of all, we must identify what is the main flaw in our loop. In the scenario above, the cue is probably the biggest problem. We cannot form a habit when we only study when we feel like it, because, and let’s be honest here, usually in school we mostly just feel sleepy rather than motivated.

So in order to fix this flaw we need to assign a different cue – a cue that is always going to there. For example, you can use a specific time of day as a cue. Once the clock strikes five in the afternoon, you start studying. And since 5pm occurs every day, it allows you to repeat the cycle consistently until studying becomes your daily 5pm routine.

You can also add another stimulus to your cue to make it more powerful. For instance, aside from just starting study at 5pm, you can also go to the public library. Now your cue becomes a combination of both 5pm and the library. The more cues you have, the more effective it is in triggering the wanted behavioural response.

In some cases, the reward can also be the problem.

Sometimes when we study, especially if the topic is quite difficult, it could make us feel confused and frustrated which, instead of encourage, can scare us away from studying which is the complete opposite of what we want to happen. Or maybe it’s taking a while until you get your test marks back so your efforts are not being rewarded right away.

So how can we fix this?

In this case, we need to immediately insert an additional pleasant stimulus as a reward for your behaviour. For example, after studying, give yourself a piece of chocolate or a lolly as a small reward, no matter how studying made you feel or if you still don’t know how your test went. When you do this, your brain makes the association that just by making the effort to study, you still receive a prize.

And of course you can add another stimulus to your reward to increase its effect. For instance, at the end of every study session, you can also watch an episode of your favourite TV show while snacking on your chocolate. The more satisfying and enjoyable the reward, the more effective it is in encouraging the behaviour.

Finally, make sure the three parts of the loop are kept consistent every time you repeat the cycle so the links become stronger and stronger, until studying becomes a habit.

NOW THE HARDEST PART OF HABIT FORMATION: THE REPETITION. HOW CAN WE IMPROVE OUR SELF-CONTROL IN ORDER TO MAKE SURE THAT WE REPEAT THE CYCLE ENOUGH TIMES TO FORM A HABIT? READ OUR NEXT ARTICLE ABOUT SELF-CONTROL TO FIND OUT!