How to Make Learning Habit Forming

It has been suggested recently that we need to make an effort to learn, that it is something we normally resist and that if we don’t put a plan into action that makes it happen, then we won’t learn. We’ll just continue on as before.

There’s some truth to that. While we’re learning all the time, it’s often limited to what we already know how to do, and so all we’re really doing is getting better at it. We’re not learning how to change. We’re not making a habit of learning something new and different.


New Year’s resolutions

Did you make one recently?  Every year, millions of people make New Year’s resolutions. Their resolve or intention is to do something, or perhaps many things, differently because they want to get a better outcome than the one they’ve experienced in the past.

The past could be last year, the last several years, or much of their lives. Whatever it is, they’ve reached a point where they’re unhappy with their present circumstances enough to want to change them.

Brené Brown, noted research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and bestselling author, has observed that our attitude towards these resolutions change over time. It explains why many of us keep making the same ones each year, and why we fail to keep them.

·         January 1st – “This is going to be awesome!”

·         January 5th – “I’m awesome”

·         January 10th“This sucks”

·         January 20th“I suck”

So much for turning over a new leaf.


Another approach

Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century theologian and later President of Yale University, approached the problem in an entirely different way. Instead of declaring a few resolutions at the beginning of each year, he wrote 70+ of them when he was 18, and committed to reading all of them weekly for the rest of his life. They are so profound, that they are available in print to this day.

Most of us need to find a balance between reiterating the same ones every year and reviewing six dozen of them 250 times during the next half century. Just as there weren’t many people who could follow Edward’s example in his day, in the past three hundred and fifty years, it hasn’t gotten any easier.


What are you willing to give up?

One of the biggest challenges with any kind of personal change is that we have to be willing to give up something in order to gain something else. To think of this in another way, change can’t be made in a vacuum.

If you have a bowl of water, and you remove a teaspoon of it, the surrounding liquid will rush in to fill the gap before you even notice that you’ve done anything. It doesn’t leave a hole. That’s a good illustration of what must happen in your life. Yet somehow we think that we can continue to carry on as before. We think that introducing change is like scooping out snow, rather than water. In other words, we think that change can co-habit the same space as no change.

This is one of the lies that we tell ourselves, and it may be one of the primary reasons why we fail to keep the resolutions we make.

Brown’s observation about how we feel about things a mere ten days into the year reflects our frustration with being unable to have it both ways. Emotionally, we still have a foot in both camps; and to make lasting change – to develop a new habit – we have to get both feet into the new camp.


Learning something new

When we make a resolution, at any time of the year, we’re telling ourselves that we want to learn something new, that we want to change. Granted, those who want to get physically fit or lose weight may be covering old ground as it were; but because their bodies have changed since the last time they tried it, it’s still a new experience. There may now be added health problems or more avoirdupois to shift. As Heracliltus has reminded us, no man (or woman) can step into the same river twice. That’s because the river itself is constantly changing.

The received wisdom for a long time was to announce your goals; to tell one or more other people what you intended to do as that public declaration would make it more real to you and those friends would encourage you or even hold you to account. A recent study, however, has shown that this doesn’t work. In fact, it makes matters worse. Apparently when we tell others of our plans, the brain treats them as fait accompli. This may be the reasoning behind why writers are discouraged from discussing their plots with people. The place to do so is in the manuscript; not over a pint with someone who doesn’t know the difference between Jack Mustard and Kasandra Scarlett.



If the goal is to learn how to develop a new habit, then it’s essential that you know exactly what you want. This is an art.

While you may have a rough idea; it is simply not good enough. It’s a bit like saying that you’d like to visit France. Where in France? It’s kind of a big place.

The more specific that you can make your learning goal or your resolution to change a habit, the more your brain can focus on what is needed to get you there. That’s because a new habit is very precise indeed.

Losing weight is imprecise. A diuretic will do that. Would that mean that you had changed your habit?

Getting fitter could mean that you aren’t breathless after walking across the room; but does that mean you’ve acquired a fitness habit?



The new habit that you learn must also be achievable within a reasonable period of time. If you try to accomplish too much too quickly, then you’ll become discouraged and give up; but if you go for something little and allow too much time for it, then you may go back to your old habits, too. That’s because you have to stick with it long enough to make the change.

Somewhere along the line we got the idea that it takes about three weeks to develop a new habit. Research has shown, however, that it’s more like two months. So whatever new habit you want to learn must require you to stay with it for at least that long. If it doesn’t, then your old habit will very easily take over again. Even after eight or nine weeks, you’ll have to be careful. You’ll still have to reinforce that new habit until it becomes the new normal.



It’s been demonstrated that those who take regular measurements are more likely to make the changes that they want to make. There is one caveat to all of this, and that is that you must not allow yourself to make compromises in order to accomplish your short term goals.

Take dieting, for instance. You may inadvertently miss a meal one day. It can happen. You get busy and you forget. When you get on the scale the next day, you discover that you lost two pounds. You can’t allow yourself to then start skipping lunch so that you can continue to lose that weight. For one thing, it won’t work, and for another you’ll do yourself more harm than good.


Be kind to yourself

Depending on how long you’ve been following your old habit, there will be times when you slip back into it. Forgive yourself. Don’t allow yourself to feel that all is lost. Don’t adopt the mind-set of January 20th that I mentioned earlier. Pick up where you left off and get back on the program. It’s short-term thinking that feeds your emotions to give up. Long-term thinking will help you to stay with it.


Associate with like-minded people­

If possible, associate with people who have already developed the habit that you want to acquire. That may mean spending less time with your old friends. You have to decide what is most important. If certain people are keeping you from developing an important habit, then get away from them, or at least don’t spend time with them when they are indulging in behaviour that is the opposite of what you are trying to cultivate.

You can see you have to get into the habit in order to learn something new. It demands that you change the way you think and act; and you have to practice it just like anything else. It won’t come naturally. If it did, then you wouldn’t be setting this life changing goal.

Decide today that come this time next year, you won’t have to renew your intention. Because by then, it will have become that habit that you wanted.

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