Brain Habits: Making & Breaking Habits

As I get ready to teach several 10-week Executive Study Strategies courses to middle school, high school and college students this winter, how to help them form new habits is on my mind. My training courses require that students learn novel principles and engage in deliberate practice. The premise of such learning methods, processes and habits is founded in the concept of making a marked shift in thinking based on learnt and practiced behaviors that are different from routines.

  • In my opinion, there are two parts to developing cognitive and executive habits
  • Stop or get rid of old bad habits
    • Example, try and get rid of a bad habit of shoving papers into the bag pack right before you leave the class (thinking that you don’t have time to put it in the right binder or folder)
  • Learn and employ new habits that don’t exist
    • Example, get into a habit of writing down what happened in each class at school as a way to trigger your memory. The idea is that the written reminder will trigger your thoughts about the content

In the book The Power of Habit the author Charles Duhigg discusses neurobehavioral elements of habit formation. According to the scientists he interviewed, the neurocognitive process called the Habit-Loop has three parts:

1. The cue – the brain gears to get into an automatic mode

2. The routine – the sequence of actions or the behavior itself

3. The reward -remember this pattern for the future

What we know about habits is that each and every habit has its own cue, routine and reward. Mr. Duhigg suggests that in order to change the automatic behaviors that we call bad habits we must do mindful search of what the cues and rewards are and then slowly start changing them. As you can imagine changing habits that work on brain’s reward system can be delayed, obscure and sometimes intangible. One has to learn its structure with a high level of motivation and a great amount of self-awareness. Developing Executive Function habits of organized thinking, planning and problem solving need effort and deliberate thought, all of which is not fun.  Using organizational tools and methods can make a person less scattered and more productive but that feeling is only sustained as long as ongoing continuous effort exists.

Experts agree that, in order to develop new mental habits, one has to go beyond simple experience of new skill. Research psychologist from Florida State University, Dr. K Anders Ericsson, (2006) says, “Until most individuals recognize that sustained training and effort is a prerequisite for reaching expert levels of performance, they will continue to misattribute lesser achievement to the lack of natural gifts, and will thus fail to reach their own potential.” One has to turn these new experiences into something called deliberate practice where they have to concentrate on going beyond their current ability (as described by Ericsson).

In conclusion, forming new habits cannot be just founded in observation of disappointing performance or difficulties in experiencing success. Rather, high motivation to improve performance seems to do the trick. Many students with Executive Function Disorder do not have that kind of awareness or understanding about their lack of skills or good habits. And on top of that, they lack the motivation to do things differently. People like me who coach, train or guide these students have to keep that fact in mind.

I always say to my students, “An expert student engages in deliberate practice without rest for an hour at a time, and their ability to concentrate on the new habit is the most crucial thing that seals the deal.

So, my parting message to all the students I work with is:

  • Know that deliberate practice creates “Experts”
  • Awareness is the key to making changes
  • Learn the routine or steps involved in organization so procedures become automatic
  • Keep a written log of new habits that you are trying to form to see what’s working and what’s not
  • Engage in introspection or reflection
  • Share or communicate with others about your goals to form new habits
  • Use positive self-talk for motivation
  • Allow time for new skills to get synched

I invite you to leave a comment and join me in sharing ideas. If you would you like to know more about my practice, visit my website at For any further communication, leave me a note here or contact me at


  1. Andrew Davenport

    January 15, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    One habit I could potentially change is my habit of backing half-way down the driveway before checking to see if anything is behind me.

  2. Elizabeth Burroughs

    January 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    So far, as I have said and heard, I have pretty much stuck with whatever habits I have formed, and am not good at breaking them, especially if I like the reward enough. Sounds like this isn’t going to be an easy thing, but that’s what I’ve heard about every change I’m trying to make, so I’m going to try my best to just buckle down and do what has to be done.

  3. Jason Miller

    January 15, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    This blog post is a very good recap of the very things we have been talking about trhought my time with you. For me, glitch analysis has been the hardest part for me, because it is unnatural for me to monitor my deep thinking and review the actions i am about to commit before doing them. Writing down glitches is not the important part, rather the ability to self monitor thought to anticipate when these glitch’s may occur based on past experience. For me, this process of thinking will undoubtedly help me refrain from doing things that inhibit my own learning or general satisfaction. When these patterns of success and satisfaction occur, as learned in the post, these positive routines will take hold.

  4. Hayley E

    January 17, 2013 at 12:39 am

    I think I’m going to stop staying up too late (past 11) with my friends on school nights

    I’m going to start talking to more guys

  5. Sulo

    May 19, 2013 at 11:21 am

    I actually read the whole post. Considering how short my attention span is, that in itself is a start…

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