Habits for All Seasons
When Chris started his first quarter of college, the plan was to turn in everything on time and get straight As. However, the first week he got the stomach virus going around campus, the second week he slept through his alarm and missed his morning classes, and the third week his high school girlfriend who attends a different college broke up with him on his birthday. Chris would go to class, but his mind was elsewhere. He tried to catch up on a few assignments but ended up fighting through online distractions instead. He started staying up later which rushed his mornings and caused him to miss breakfast. What sleep Chris got was strained, and soon falling asleep in class was a pattern. His motivation was in a slump, too. Wasn’t college supposed to be the best years of his life? He didn’t dream of telling his parents either who were still riding high on the wave of his graduation and acceptance into his first choice school. The best answer seemed to forget about it—to stuff his feelings of failure. Going to parties and staying out late seemed to help with this solution, but missing more classes and falling further behind did not. The only thing Chris felt confident about was the impression his professors thought he was a flake. After all, their only interactions came from questions about his missing or late work…
Chris’s story may sound like an exaggeration, but in fact, his experience unfortunately resembles many of my former freshman’s lives. And it never surprised me when Chris or Samantha or Tom or Kaitlin finally revealed their series of struggles—not because I actually believed these students were flaky but because, like most adults, I’m old enough to have experienced the consequences of my own unhelpful choices combined with life’s poor timing. You can’t plan for illness, mistakes, or heartbreaks. We don’t write “skip class” on our calendars. These events happen off the page of our planners.
Unfortunately, students who keep heartaches and self-loathing to themselves live in a world of pain and isolation in a new environment. And if they wait until the end of the term, their professors can’t help them and they often fail our classes. They sometimes imagine their professors or parents can’t understand their problems—students may even imagine they’re failing at their debut in adulthood. But the truth is many of your parents, professors, and counselors have a menu of resources to help you through a hard time, and their words of understanding and encouragement may even help you get back on track. In some ways, asking for help when you’re in over your head might be the most mature thing you can do.
It’s not possible to avoid all of the challenges in the opening scenario, or to always make the best decision for yourself. According to the growing field of brain research, adolescents often learn to spot a bad decision by first making one. But even if you can’t always make the right call, you can set yourself up to weather obstacles by looking at your routines and habits. These constant companions make a big difference with avoiding certain failure and getting back on track when we blow it.
Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, has interviewed psychologists, behavioral specialists, and businesses to further understand the outline of a habit. Duhigg has identified the ingredients of what he calls the habit loop as the following: cue, routine, and reward. In fact, Duhigg argues that learning to identify our routines allows us to experiment with rewards, isolate cues, and create new plans. That means you can both eliminate bad habits AND form new ones. So if you want to pave the way for your future success in college, Duhigg would encourage you to begin by studying your routines. He provides an excellent breakdown of how a habit works on his website, where he walks you through his afternoon cookie break—a habit that was taking a toll on his waistline.
College students are not that different from Duhigg and the rest of us really, except your habits—like sleeping, studying, class attendance, and even cookie breaks—are suddenly under new scrutiny. No longer under the management of caregivers, you must now develop your own routines. Are there any routines that could have saved Chris in the opening example? If it’s possible to alter a habit to improve your chances of success, to save yourself from Chris’s first quarter fate, there’s still time to make some adjustments and look out for your future self. Below are a list of habits, I’d love to see college students embrace.
In the opening example, Chris set his expectations very high: straight As and perfect attendance. You can’t get any higher than perfection. However, when problems and mistakes occurred, the tendency for many students like Chris is to hide or to forget. Why? Because the shame of failure is too great. Too many students, and too many people for that matter, practice a kind of self-loathing that’s very unproductive. So, you messed up? We all do. What you do next is what counts. And your comeback plan begins with believing you already have what it takes to recover.
In terms of habit, work to interrupt the negative feedback loop around failure. Replace this tape with honest thoughts like, “Well, I really messed up by sleeping through my alarm. I feel awful. But tomorrow, I’m going to talk to my professor and get back on track.” Another habit to cement before college is to predetermine your support team. Create a system where you give permission for loved ones to ask questions about your well-being and promise to tell the truth. When we’re down on ourselves, it helps to have those who care about us checking in, rather than relying on us to reach out.
Many students struggle with punctuality and attendance, and these are certainly habits to address, but planning ahead may be an even better habit to consider. If you are not using a calendar or a planner in high school, commit to using one or both tools as you start your first term of college.
Unlike high school classes that may assign outlines and first drafts, your college courses will use syllabi and course schedules to communicate course expectations, projects, and assigned reading. Some classes may assign only reading and a final paper due on the last day of class. If you haven’t been organizing your life around this due date, you will experience immense stress and likely submit a poor performance. And because your college peers will represent a variety of learning styles and abilities, following their habits won’t save you and may even sink you.
Additionally, students like Chris need help to strategize around setbacks. A great habit to practice before and during college is to think through how you’ll encounter obstacles and the steps you’ll take to recover from a setback. Think of it as a disaster plan. Some students are so rigid with their expectations they won’t drop classes or ask for extensions when they’re in academic hot water. In the end, they do poorly in all of their classes because they resist accepting the challenge is too big to overcome.There’s believing in yourself and then there’s being realistic about your options.While I don’t recommend planning to drop classes or asking for paper extensions as a habit, deciding in advance what circumstances could lead to this action is helpful should you face this tough decision. Note: Not everyone leaving for college understands how to think and plan ahead or how to see their time—I highly recommend working with an executive function coach before college or finding online resources in this area. Mary Dee Sklar is an educator who offers online resources, and in the Portland area, I always recommend Dr. Deborah Barany, an excellent executive function coach in addition to other specialties.
We all love funny videos and staying connected through social media. And then there are movies and video games and seasons upon seasons on Netflix. But college is a fantastic opportunity to hit the reset button on your recreational use of technology. Why? Because you’ll actually be using devices with screens a lot—for research, for writing, for reading your online syllabi, and more. These important uses of technology will entice you to take breaks, which can turn into hours of stolen time from your projects. Instead, create a habit for rationing breaks to check your favorite platforms and various devices by giving yourself a time limit. Also, breaks should include food, hydration, and moving around, not just the healthy distraction of your favorite movie. Finally, remember your brain can’t concentrate for hours at a time, so plan ahead to chunk your study time with regular breaks. Every student is different but a lot of research suggests breaks after 50 minutes.
For many of us, leaving home provides our long awaited independence but introduces a brand new challenge: taking care of our most basic needs. From laundry to bed time, it’s suddenly up to you to determine how to nurture yourself with the essentials—food, rest, and hygiene. Will you do laundry twice a week or once a week? Will you clean your dorm just when your roommate is fed up? Or will you clean up daily to maintain a healthy environment? Will you plan on 8 hours of sleep, 6 hours of sleep—at what point is 4 hours of sleep nightly a problem for you? Much like planning ahead, looking to your peers may not be helpful here. You may have plenty of friends able to stay out all night, attend classes, and succeed with As and Bs. But most of us cannot thrive in such conditions. Another way of thinking of it is to consider your thrive conditions. Ask yourself: what are my optimal conditions for thriving? How can I design my college life around an understanding of them (even if I can’t have them all the time)?
Developing habits around your self-care plan is another crucial way to help yourself succeed in college. Because some of these routines have been taken care of by your family, it’s important to create expectations for yourself about how you’ll meet these needs independently.
My advice to new college students is to be open about failures (slept through an alarm) and genuine embarrassment (this is not the kind of student I want to be, and I have taken steps to avoid this mistake in the future). Talk to loved ones and friends about emotional pain (I really miss my girlfriend) and the challenges of focusing on classes (I just want to sleep in my own bed). You will need these communication skills for the rest of your life, and college is a fantastic place to practice. Many of your college professors have children of their own or have faced the same challenges you’re facing. Not everyone will be empathetic, but my guess is the majority will listen and give you feedback about how to improve in their classes. If Chris would have reached out to his professor after his initial stomach virus, he would have gotten advice on how to catch up—perhaps the professor would have advised him on which work to make up and which work to leave unfinished. But more importantly, Chris would have created a connection point with this professor, and now she would have Chris on her radar. Big schools may not give you an opportunity to talk with your professors, but you can use other tools, like email, to communicate.
Just like you set an alarm for class, build a habit around talking to loved ones and close friends by scheduling a time on your calendar. Commit to honestly sharing your challenges, failures, and successes. If someone at home isn’t able to give you that support, find support at your college from establishing close friendships or even visiting the health center to speak with a counselor. Remember that it’s not necessary to share all of your problems with all of your friends and professors, but having at least one person you trust can make a big difference in your college experience.
Spending an hour or two prior to every term to identify your goals, routines, and plans for success can be a great way to do more than dream but hold yourself accountable to your dreams. Your future self says thank you.