Making a habit of it

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Will Durrant, American historian, paraphrasing Aristotle

On the internet, where dodgy misattributions abound, this quotation is invariably ascribed to Aristotle himself. In fact, it is taken from historian and prolific author Will Durrant’s early 20th century work, The Story of Philosophy. In chapter 2 he examines Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and summarises his interpretation as above.

Despite undoubtedly being a genius, Aristotle was a master of the practical over and above the theoretical, which is perhaps the reason why his ideas have endured so successfully. He was one of the few thinkers of his time to acknowledge that philosophy is a luxury: that certain physiological and indeed psychological needs must be met before one can dedicate one’s time to it. He argued that there was never a simple way to define anything, that even the most fundamental moral definitions can vary with circumstances. He also argued, as Durrant summarised so pithily, that living well comes to a large extent through the repeated automation of good habits, and that being theoretically good was not much use in isolation without action.

This week, I finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a spectacularly popular book I have been in the queue for at my local library for several months. Conscious of the even longer queue that came after me (it is next available in December!) I finished the book within a couple of days. This was not a difficult task. I can see why there has been so much fuss about it and why for some it has been genuinely revelatory. As a reasonably well-organised and self-motivated person, I would not go so far as to say that I found the book life-changing, but I certainly found it helpful and agreed whole-heartedly with his refreshingly pragmatic approach. To take just one example, he makes the point that people who appear to be good at resisting temptation (a characteristic that many of my friends claim I possess) are in fact merely better at avoiding it – ingraining the habit, for example, that you do not buy certain foodstuffs is always more successful than buying them and telling yourself that you will consume them in moderation: the latter is simply too difficult to achieve.

Above all else, Clear’s point is that successful people (and you can define “success” in whatever way you choose) develop good habits while others do not. This might seem obvious, but it is precisely his unerring focus on habits that is so radical. While other self-help manuals exhort people to find their motivation and attempt to inspire us to make dramatic changes in our lives, Clear focuses on advising us to develop better habits incrementally: to take advantage of our brain’s ability to assimilate and automate regular and repeated behaviours. For example, I have said to myself: “I will go to the gym at x time on a Monday and a Thursday every week.” How do I make sure that this happens? Well, Clear advises going when I can, whatever the circumstances. If I miss a session due to illness or emergency, it becomes even more important to ensure that I make it the next time. If I can only go for 10 minutes, I should go for 10 minutes. This is because the habit of going is what’s most important. To quote another oft-used saying, perfectionism is the enemy of progress: if I let my abstract desire to achieve the perfect full work-out every time I go to the gym dominate over the priority of simply going habitually, I put my long-term gains at risk. It is easy to use the fact that on any one particular day I simply don’t have time for the perfect workout as an excuse not to go at all. Instead, I should focus on developing the habit of attending come what may, even if my peformance is sub-optimal: the enduring habit is the path to life-long fitness.

One of the things Clear expresses beautifully is the limited power of motivation, something I have written about less skilfully here. I am a firm believer that motivation is difficult to come by and has limited value when it comes to the reality of the daily grind – for example, the regular gym visits necessary to attain fitness or the repeated vocabulary learning required to sit a Latin exam. Humans need to experience some practical gains before they can achieve any kind of motivation and even then motivation can fail. Clear mentions a discussion he had with a coach who trains successful weight-lifters. The coach attributed the difference between those who make it and those who don’t not to some bottomless pit of inspiration or self-motivation but quite simply to their tolerance for boredom: their capacity to stick with the programme of repeated lifts, day after day, without quitting. Fundamentally, that’s all that makes the difference.

One of my tutees, with less than a fortnight to go before their exam, suddenly interrupted our session to ask me about “the best way to learn vocabulary.” Now, I’m not saying there aren’t ways that are better than others, indeed I have written extensively about it and shared a practical guide to exactly that with him and his family months ago. But I know this particular student very well and he’s the sort that is always looking for a silver bullet. He’s the sort that wants a quick fix. The reality is this: there isn’t one. You. Just. Have. To. Do. It. A few words a day, every day, day in day out, over and again, until you’ve learnt them. This is what he has never been willing to hear and he wasn’t particularly thrilled when I said it again.

On my way to my first ever solo gym visit (yes, I made it!) I was stopped by a guy who was getting out of his car and wanted directions to the station. Rising above the urge to moan about London commuters who use our road as a free car park, I beamed at him and said I was going in that direction and would show him the way. “I’m heading there,” I said, pointing to the glowering gymnasium squatting next to Jewsons. “Although I’m not particularly thrilled about it.” What he said next precisely summed up Clear’s case in Atomic Habits. “I haven’t been to the gym for months,” he admitted. I told him that it was my first time going alone having lost my work-out buddy and that I wasn’t looking forward to it for that reason. “Ah!” he shouted, confidently, as we parted ways. “You just need to find your motivation!

Coming from a man who had literally just admitted that he had failed to attend his own gym for months, I found this fascinating. He was probably looking at me and thinking that with my attitude I would never keep going. I lacked the motivation to be a proper gym-goer. As for himself, I suspect in his own mind he was just having a blip. Okay, a blip that had lasted for several months, but a blip nonetheless. He was motivated to go, he simply hadn’t had the time, recently. Work had been manic. But do you see the problem? I think I do. In all honesty, I do not feel motivated to go to the gym. I don’t want to go. But I’m going. That’s the point. It’s the same thing that got me through my PhD, which I hated every minute of; while others claimed to love their research and yet gradually fell by the wayside and quit, I dragged myself up every day, wrote a few paragraphs, cried a lot, and eventually finished it. The practical grind beats the theoretical, the habit beats the concept. Sometimes, the hamster on the wheel is the ultimate winner.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

The Summer Slump

At around this time last year I was in my final few weeks at the chalkface and I wrote about how difficult we make things for ourselves in schools. Believe me, I remember only too well the exhaustion that teachers feel at this time of year, but it was my experience that my job was made harder by the messaging sent out by the school. Everything from the ditching of uniform to the multiple interruptions to the timetable meant that students were given the subliminal message that school was already out for summer. Getting them to focus on work for what amounted to a still-significant percentage of the year was difficult.

This year I am on the outside, working with multiple tutees in dozens of schools. It is clear that in many schools the curriculum has stalled or been cancelled altogether and the school is free-wheeling towards the end of term. Many teachers have suspended normal teaching and told students to work on projects. Many of these are of dubious value, although there are exceptions: one or two schools are doing some excellent work with Year 9 foreshadowing the literature study that they will face next year, asking then to examine some portions of text as pieces of writing. Generally, however, students are working on “background” studies and messing about with PowerPoint presentations, none of which appear to be relevant to their current or future curriculum; most of them are only too aware that they have been given “busy work” in which the teacher is not really interested.

“My teacher says not to produce anything that they will have to mark,” said one tutee this week. As a marking-phobe myself, I cannot help but feel the teacher’s pain on this one, but it was perhaps not the wisest remark to make to the class. My favourite anecdote, however, is the school that has already collected in all text books for all subjects – that’s three weeks prior to the end of their year! Such extraordinary efficiency will do little to convince students that there is valuable work yet to be done in class and I do have to wonder how much say teaching staff had in this triumph of administrative order over learning.

Nothing will ever make me forget the sheer exhaustion that can overwhelm teaching staff at this time of year – and yes, the heat doesn’t help. But my own recollections are of frustration at the constant interruptions and the very clear assumption – by students, by parents and even by school leaders – that the learning was coming to an end. So I do feel for the teachers out there who are desperately trying to keep the learning on track. Certainly the students I work with now are somewhat puzzled by the downturn, especially those that have recently been pushed hard in the run-up to internal examinations. All of a sudden, it seems, their learning is no longer of crucial importance and some of them feel a little abandoned. It’s been a sobering lesson in just what an impact our own demeanour and our messaging can have on the students in front of us.

Photo by Tony Tran on Unsplash

Like riding a bike

You’d think I’d have managed one full academic year before ending up back in the classroom. And not just any classroom. My classroom – or at least, the one that was mine for 13 years. But an argument between his elbow and some uneven ground has left my successor incapacitated and at the mercy of our crumbling NHS, leaving me once again in front of Year 11. It was something of a surprise – for me and for them.

The timing might seem like it couldn’t be worse but in many ways it couldn’t be much better. When one first imagines the idea of a teacher unable to work immediately prior to the GCSE examinations, it’s easy to panic. But the more I thought about those current Year 11s, the more relaxed I felt for them. They are ready for the exams. They have been taught everything that they need to know by two very competent and experienced teachers – me, if I do say so myself, and my successor, who has spent even longer at the chalkface than I have and who has an outstandiing record when it comes to results. Really, I am just a familiar, reassuring face, reminding them of these facts and helping them along the way in their final preparations.

I thought I would be nervous. Suprisingly, I wasn’t. As one old colleague remarked, “I bet it’s like stepping back into a pair of old, comfortable shoes.” I certainly knew exactly what she meant. Everything is familiar, from the classroom surroundings (although I will confess that my successor is a little less fanatical about classroom tidiness than I was …) to the students (whom I have taught for four years) and the material (which I have taught for more years than I care to remember). Nothing was news to me, other than a few tweaks to the decor inside the school.

One thing that did strike me once again is just how dreadfully long an hour is. I have written before on why I tutor in 30-minute sessions rather than an hour and whilst I understand the practical reasons why schools favour longer lessons, it really hit me on my return to the classroom just how long a time 60 minutes is and just how much time is wasted as a result. Students – especially younger students – will inevitable tire in that time-frame and the amount of learning time that is lost due to poor concentration makes me feel queasy. There has been much welcome discussion recently in some educational circles about the importance of children’s 100% focus and just how the classroom teacher can seek to ensure that they have everybody’s full and undivided attention – it isn’t easy, to put it mildly. The reality, I believe, is that one cannot in fact expect it when one is asking a young person to focus for so long a time on one subject and in one seat.

I greatly enjoyed my return to the classroom and will look forward to further revisitations once a week over the next month (assuming that the NHS waiting time is as long for my successor as I fear it will be). Their reaction was complete underwhelm, which I take as a testmanet to their resilience and a compliment to all the work that my successor and I have achieved with them: they know they are ready, they know they are looked after, they know they will do well.

This wonderful photo of a bicycle propped up against a market stall in Rome is by Mark Pecar, sourced from Unsplash