Habits run our lives. Charlotte Mason recognized that almost a century ago, and nowadays scientists are studying what habits actually are.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses why we do the things we do as well as how to understand and change our habits.
As a homeschooling mom, I believe habit training is important for my children as well as for myself. We don’t want to waste our time, energy, health, or money on bad habits. Duhigg’s analysis of habits is helping us change our lives, one habit at a time.
But it’s hard to change what you always do without knowing a bit about why you do it. That’s where Duhigg’s book and his detailed flowchart come in. He points out that all habits have the following three parts:
- A cue
- A behavior or routine
- A reward
To change a habit, you must keep the old cue and the old reward but insert a new behavior or routine. This can be a complicated business, and may require significant trial and error. It is vital to think of what you’ll do when you’re tempted by your old habit and to write it down and practice it whenever you’re confronted with the cue. Eventually, the new response can become a new habit.
This means, of course, that you must determine what the cue and the reward are for your child’s behavior—or yours. Why do all of you eat all those cookies every afternoon? Is it because you’re hungry? Bored? Needing a change? Or is it a mindless habit? Once you’ve determined why your family eats those cookies, you’ll be more equipped to set up an alternate behavior or routine for yourself and your children. For example, if you just need a change, you can go for a walk. If you’re hungry, you can prepare a healthy snack in advance. And so on.
None of this is easy, of course. And you’ll need to pick your battles and focus on the most important habits that need changing. Some habits, called keystone habits, have a snowball effect and seem to matter more in remaking lives. I don’t know why, really, but exercising, making one’s bed, and eating dinner as a family are three that seem to have a disproportionate effect on people’s lives. They provide structures that help other habits flourish and they help us to remember our values.
So now I no longer let the children ‘forget’ to make their beds. Once they understood that I was serious about it, they learned to do it most of the time and appreciate the restfulness it brings to their daily environment. Because, yes, as a family learning at home, we are subtly influenced by the sight of those beds, made or unmade, all day long.
Is this a small change? Sure, but in changing habits, ‘small wins’ are important and build on each other.
Two other ideas jumped out at me from this book:
- Dysfunction occurs when leaders let an institution’s culture develop without guidance. Remember, a family and a homeschool are both ‘institutions’. Douglas Wilson has often mentioned the importance of a family culture in his books about parenting, but I could never understand what he meant. Now I think I do. Duhigg mentions that institutions develop hundreds of routines mindlessly, and that these routines determine to a large extent how the institution works. In other words, we homeschooling moms must take the time to think about the routines developed in our families to make sure they are good. Do they promote our family values? Glorify God? Promote peacefulness? Enhance learning? Encourage a thoughtful use of time, money, and energy?
- Willpower is like a muscle—you get tired after using it for a while. However, like a muscle, it can be strengthened as you learn to regulate impulses and resist temptation. Useful ways of strengthening willpower in our children include sports and music lessons. I’m benefitting from 21 Days to a More Disciplined Life (see my review), and the challenge based on it. Exercising one’s willpower can become a habit with huge benefits.
Of course, since we are sinful creatures, we are inclined to sinful habits. We cannot improve ourselves by ourselves, but by God’s grace we can learn to conform our habits to God’s will. Understanding how habits function in our lives can help us work on them.
For more information about habits, you could read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. He made a wonderful flowchart about changing habits as well. You could also look at what Charlotte Mason has written in Home Education, volume 1 of her series. 21 Days to a More Disciplined Life holds your hand in a practical way as you develop both willpower and new habits.
This post has been entered in The Carnival of Homeschooling and the Charlotte Mason Carnival, and is also linked to the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Saturday Reviews, Better Mom Monday, Trivium Tuesdays, Encourage One Another Wednesday, Women Living Well Wednesdays, Works For Me Wednesday , Wisdom Wednesdays, Raising Homemakers, and Frugal Friday