ACADEMIC & CAREER | JANUARY 1, 2020

 

Habits are powerful enough to drag you down, but they can also be used to build you up. With a deliberate approach to habits, you can accomplish your goals at work, in school, and in life.

There’s a famous quote you might have heard before from a parent, teacher, or mentor: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” While it’s commonly attributed to Aristotle, the fact that it was actually uttered by 20th century American author and philosopher Will Durant makes it no less true.

Habits are important because they make up such a large quantity of our lives. According to a study by the University of Southern California’s Department of Psychology, as much as 40% of our actions are merely subconscious habits. Maybe your after-class routine involves playing video games until dinner, or you sit down with a bag of chips each time you watch TV. While you might feel like you’re making choices in these situations, the reality is that you’re just doing what you habitually do. You don’t decide to brush your teeth before bed – you (hopefully) just do it. Look ma, no frontal lobe!

Habits are powerful enough to drag you down, but the good news is that they can also be used to build you up. With a deliberate approach to habits, you can form ones that help you accomplish your goals at work, in school, and in life. The secret recipe requires a little bit of intention and a lot of repetition. To reach your full potential as a student, start ingraining these four habits today.

1. Take useful notes during class

You might be surprised at how many students zone out in class with the expectation that they’ll download the professor’s PowerPoint presentation or lecture notes later on (or maybe you recognize this behavior in yourself). Even if those materials are available, class time is the first opportunity you have to absorb important information, and the notes you take in class are the foundation for the rest of your studying. We recommend physical notetaking with a pen and paper instead of using a device because it helps you retain information better. No matter what method you use, review your notes as soon as possible after class. Research shows we forget about 40% of information just 24 hours after hearing it.

2. Spread out your studying

It sounds obvious, but many students habitually put off work until the night before a test or essay is due. The result? Increased stress and decreased performance. A compilation of more than 30 studies found a predictable connection between procrastination and poorer academic results, indicating that students should instead spread out their coursework over a longer period of time. By studying each subject for less time at more frequent intervals, you engage with the material regularly and have a better shot at committing it to memory. No matter where your classes fall during the week, make it a point to review your notes on a daily basis.

3. Go to the library to work

Believe it or not, your dorm room – the same place you hang out with friends, play video games, and watch movies – is rarely the best place to work. On the other hand, studies have shown that students who utilize the on-campus library learn better and have higher GPAs than their peers who do not. Libraries aren’t just a place to focus, either. Whether you need help conducting research, finding sources, or compiling a bibliography, librarians are a valuable resource, and they can help you become a more proficient student if you reach out to them when necessary.

4. Find a quiet space

Unfortunately, the library itself can’t make you a better student on its own – especially if you use it as a social gathering place. It’s fine to study with friends or accomplish group work when the situation calls for it, but finding a quiet, private place to do the majority of your work will have a major impact on your productivity. Notifications on your phone might be distracting, but face-to-face interruptions are the hardest to ignore, and it takes an average of 25 minutes for you to regain focus after being distracted. Find a quiet room or study carrel and you’ll be able to accomplish more work in less time.

5. Get a good night’s sleep

This tip might not sound like a study habit, but a wealth of research makes the importance of sleep quantity and quality abundantly clear. In fact, there’s a strong positive correlation between the amount of sleep students get on average and their GPA, and a strong negative correlation between the number of days per week they get less than five hours of sleep and their GPA. The best way to ensure you’re getting enough sleep is to maintain a consistent schedule. Go to sleep at the same time each night, whether it’s from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. or midnight to 8:00 am, and resist the temptation to try and “make up” for missed sleep by sleeping in on the weekends. This practice will throw off your rhythm and make waking up that much harder during the week.


According to an article in the European Journal of Social Psychology, there’s quite a bit of variation in how long it takes people to form a new habit. The quickest habits developed in as little as 18 days, but the slowest took as long as 254. The lesson here is that you need to stick with it if you hope to make something automatic. Fortunately, the results are well worth it.