Developing Habits in a Time of Change

In this time of uncertainty, it can be easy to lose our way. Taking time to pause & refocus is critical to helping us seek a new path on which to resume our journey. Every day is a PD day. #myPDtoday

Lately, I’ve been reading and researching habits and making changes at the individual, family and work levels. I’ve read a number of different pieces that explore how habits and routines are rather important parts of our daily lives, helping us to move through our day without overtaxing us so much we become exhausted each day. These routines and habits help us to deal with the unexpected events that crop up during the day and give us the ability to deal with some changes in the environment around us. That is why many teachers find the first few weeks of school to be very tiring. With all the new routines and habits and the new students and any changes in the school and, well, all the ‘newness’ it is psychologically tiring. These same things happen, but for a shorter time after a break like Christmas. Once routines are re-established and the regular everyday habits are in place, it becomes less taxing.  

For this same reason, we often fail at our New Year Resolutions. We do want to change but given the return to work, the ‘January blues’ and other stressors, people often don’t follow through for very long. Another reason we often don’t follow through is that we don’t really see how all our various routines and habits are connected. What we do in the morning is connected to the way things work out in the afternoon but we don’t see these micro-connections because most of what we are doing is done by habit.  

Losing Our Way

So when something like what we are experiencing with the pandemic affects all aspects of our lives, we really are unsure how to deal with all of the change. Our routines and habits, which have helped us to move through the day, no longer support what we need to do. This includes most of us in some way. Children are staying at home all day, parents are working from home or are no longer working or are working longer hours or cannot stay with the family because of their work. Family life is all over the place.  For educators, trying to shift from a daily routine at school to now working from home, trying to figure out how they will teach through some form of online format is daunting for many. Even those who are familiar with online teaching are facing a different scenario than they are used to as now a majority of students and learning is shifting online. As I’ve written about before, this is creating a variety of different issues for teachers, students, and families. So what can be done? 

The Habits We Had

For the most part, many of our past habits don’t work like they did before. Our morning habits were all focused around getting everyone ready to leave the house while now, well, most of us aren’t leaving the house, especially children. So the habits that were in place don’t serve that purpose anymore. But, it is important to look at what habits we can use and which need to be modified. Here it is important for everyone to not try to make a quick switch. Allowing children the time to transition is important. Having moved a number of times to different places with my family, we have learned not to rush back into any type of schedule. Allowing our children time to make adjustments and become used to the newness is important to help them find their way. Now, this situation isn’t the same as moving but the upheaval of daily life means that what we were doing before needs to be set on pause. Giving children time to figure things out is important. They may be scared, confused, upset, angry, sad, mad and a whole host of other emotions right now. It will be important to develop structure and routines but allowing children to work through this with help is important.  

It’s at this time to see what previous habits and routines are important to continue. Is it important to retain certain morning routines like the time to rise, eat breakfast, and other such things? Or, can these be adjusted? For us, our youngest needed to have time to adjust since he wasn’t sleeping well. It took a good two weeks for him to settle at night. Now in week three, there is more of a daily routine but he still isn’t sleeping like he was so our morning routine for our children has changed. Our daughter still rises early for her classes, I am trying to maintain a morning routine for my work but others are sleeping later. This is the new reality we are in right now.  

Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business explores how habits form, the power of those habits in our lives and ways of changing habits. 

One of the main ideas that Duhigg explores is the Habit Loop. In this loop, there is a cue that triggers a routine that eventually leads to a reward.  

The Habit Loop 
The Habit Loop is found all around us. Each of us has particular habits that we aren’t even cognizant of but which are important for us to be able to carry out all the activities in our day. From breakfast to our nightly routines, our habits shape our days as we go about doing our work and taking part in different activities. 

  • “Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize – they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.” 

Most of these habits are necessary since it allows our brain to be able to focus on other important activities in our lives.  

  • “ When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverse focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically. … Habits never disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation.” – Ann Graybiel – scientist at MIT 

However, once a habit is in place, it can become difficult to change it. This is where knowing how the Habit Loop works is important.  

  • The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.” – Ann Graybiel. 

Not all habits are the same either. As Duhigg explains, there are certain habits that have a greater effect on what we do. 

  • Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.

These “keystone habits” can be the ones that, once they begin to change, have a ripple effect on other areas of one’s life. My own experience with rising early was like this. I tried many times to change my morning routine. What I wasn’t taking into consideration was how my daily habits were influencing (which I really didn’t know that I was doing this)  my daily routine. The biggest change I made was adding exercise to each weekday, beginning in the morning. Because I was getting up to exercise, I began to change my sleeping habits. This change in sleeping habits had an effect on my planning habits as I began to do plan each day the night before so I knew what was happening the next day which helped me to worry less about the next day. 
I had been mostly successful at reshaping my habits until three weeks ago. Then, when things started to change, my sleeping habits fell back into the old routine. Before this, I would have been really upset with the fact that this change had happened. However, now, I realize that this wasn’t a lack of willpower on my part but a result of the way my day, and our lives, had changed. Giving myself time to work through this has been useful in understanding how such changes are influenced by what is happening around us. 

The Habits We Want

According to Duhigg, a key to a new habit is developing a ‘craving’ for what I want to change. 

  • Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier. 

For me, this has meant changing the way I schedule my day and the work that I am doing. Understanding the huge disruption in our students’ and parents’ lives is going to affect all they are doing. Right now, trying to re-create a school schedule or any type of classroom schedule is ignoring the significant changes that are happening in almost all the students’ homes. These changes will take time to adjust. Rushing to try to ‘recreate’ a ’normal’ schedule is ignoring the effect this trauma will have on children and their lives. Giving them support and time to adjust is essential to transitioning to any form of learning, either online or otherwise.  

To ignore that teachers, students, and parents have been profoundly affected by this traumatic situation is to ignore the profound effect it is having on the lives of people. We are not having an educational emergency, we are experiencing a medical emergency which we have not dealt with in over 100 years. Parents are not teachers.Teachers and students are not in the classroom. There is no need to rush into learning. Everyone needs time to adjust to what is happening. No one knows what will happen after this is done, which also causes stress. Taking time to develop habits and routines that work for the moment is important for helping everyone to re-establish a necessary structure for the day, routines that work for parents and children that will support their well-being at this time.  

The habits we want right now should be more focused on meeting the needs of people dealing with the situation at hand. This requires rethinking what is expected of children and parents when it comes to learning and education. The safety and well-being – physically, mentally, spiritually – of children and parents should be the focus at this time. What we don’t need is something like this which I saw on Twitter: 

As these habits and routines have been dismantled, we must remember that such changes will have an effect on people’s capacity to deal with change and make decisions. It will take time for people to make these changes especially children.  

Let us provide the necessary care and support to help children and their parents to develop the habits and routines they need at this time. The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.  


  1. Dave Heculuck


    I worry that new habits defined by this event for our students, our community members, will ultimately change their view of success. It’s fine if success is defined for them and clear to them… but what about those with new habits that reduce their feeling of success on any level… not just students at school but people in life?
    Well done Kelly. 🙂

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *