What is a habit?
A “habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and, in many cases, automatically” (Clear 13).
Are there things that you ought to do regularly, but that you don’t ever accomplish? Would you like to get them done? If you could incorporate them into your day as habits, they would be simple to achieve.
The Apostle Paul tells us that we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens [us]” (Philippians 4:13). Hallelujah! Even as adults, we can decide to learn new things! Charlotte Mason says that we train our thoughts to run like a train runs on rails. She indicates that we can make some activities so routine that we don’t have to think about them. Isn’t that what this busy life needs?
Why do we need Habits
James Clear tells us that “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day, and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones become strikingly apparent” (Clear 23).
In our house, habits help us know what to do next. Before we start school for the day, my kids know that they need to get up, get their bodies ready for the day (dress body, brush hair and teeth), do their room chores (make the bed, dump trash, gather laundry), eat breakfast and do their kitchen chores (unload the dishwasher, etc.). We have a necessary school start time, and we have a consistent order for our lessons so that everyone knows to work on first.
However, my boys are all teenagers. I didn’t hand them a list of work to do and expect them to do it all daily. I did build these habits over time. I worked with them on their “Morning 5” (body and room chores) from the time they were tiny, with a goal of them completing those things on their own near the time they turned seven. In the past ten years, we’ve added kitchen chores and a school routine that works for us. But we built those routines one habit at a time, and we changed things that didn’t work.
How to Form Habits
In Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests that the creation of a habit requires four things. It would help if you had: a visual cue, a craving (a reason to change), a response (the habit), and a reward (personal satisfaction and success).
Choose one small thing you want to change
You cannot create new routines in one fell swoop and expect the changes to stick. If you start with tiny pieces and continue working on the project consistently for an extended time, you are more likely to have long term success. The more often you complete such a project, the less you have to think about it the next time you need to complete the task. Creating a visible cue will help you remember to grow your habit.
If you need a suggestion for where to start for a homeschool habit, I’d suggest reading Scripture with your children at some point during your homeschool day and helping them attend to the words. You can bookmark where you would like to start reading, and put the Bible in an area where your family gathers often. Read a small amount each day.
If you already read Scripture with your children each day, try putting another book that you want to read aloud with your Bible. Reading together is an excellent way to enhance your family culture, increase the love of stories in yourself and your students, and enjoy a cozy minute. Seeing the books in the spot where you gather will serve as your cue.
Attach new habits to habits you already have
You probably brush your teeth every morning. You also put on deodorant, fix your hair, and get dressed. I bet you do those things in pretty much the same order. You might even do them at roughly the same time each day. That’s just how it goes when you need to start school or leave the house quickly in the mornings. You make a routine and stick with it for the most part.
Make your new habit as attractive and straightforward as possible to complete. Decide exactly how you will accomplish the task ahead of time. Don’t leave any decisions for the moment of tackling your new habit. Gather your exact supplies and keep them together in the place where you will use them.
If you already read Scripture and some story aloud, put a poem to memorize near those books. Read the poem once or twice aloud every day after the Scripture portion. Eventually, you and your students will all be able to recite it. Build the poetry habit on the back of the Bible and story habit. (IEW’s Poetry Memorization book is an excellent resource for poems for this purpose.)
Persevere. Don’t let feelings of guilt or shame deter you.
Did you miss a day or three? Don’t worry about it. Just do that task as soon as possible, and then consider whether you need to alter your pattern or try again tomorrow. It takes about twenty-one consecutive days of performing a task to form a habit. Give yourself grace.
Also, don’t be so committed to your habits that you continue them once they are no longer useful. You can change one practice for another at any time. Habits don’t trump emergencies either. They should bring peace and draw people together, not cause more headaches. If your new task causes you problems, re-evaluate, and make changes.
Stack another habit
Are you completing the one habit you decided to add? Do you see another task or subject that you’d like to accomplish? Add it. If it is similar to the last habit, stack them together.
I’m working on a habit of reading a little educational theory each morning after reading my Bible. I’ve started with one section a day of David Hick’s Norms and Nobility. That’s about a page and a half of text. My Bible-reading habit is grace-filled but firmly established. I know that because I miss the quiet reading if it doesn’t happen for some reason. So, I put my copy of Norms on top of my Bible. In the morning, once I have my coffee, I pick them up together. I read from the Bible and then from Norms. If my time is cut short, I might only accomplish part of the Bible reading before my husband or children call me away. But most days, I manage to read from both books. In this way, I’ll manage to read the book my friends recommended slowly over time.
Some more suggestions for habits
The Habit of Attention: Charlotte starts her list of Habits by letting mothers everywhere know that their children must be able to attend before they can do anything else. She makes all sorts of suggestions for building a child’s attention muscles, to teach a child to be more observant and take in the world around him. She, of course, didn’t contend with screens. Perhaps it was easier to get children to look at insects when video games didn’t exist. Now that Minecraft and other games call to my children, we must intentionally limit their time with devices so that they don’t miss the ants trailing across the patio and the bees buzzing through the clover.
The Habit of Obedience: Charlotte Mason also talks about teaching the Habit of Obedience. Whether or not your child should instantly obey you is debated in our society today. Generally, I am on the side of “yes, he should.” Today, we had a chemistry experiment go awry, and my student’s quick obedience saved us from noxious fumes. In these cases, compliance is essential. (Mason 160-164.). Think about it. If your kid won’t obey you, homeschooling is tricky. If your child won’t listen to directions or do a chore when you ask him to, he probably won’t do his math either.
The Habit of Best Effort: Charlotte doesn’t put the rest of the habits that she suggests in any particular order. My favorite is the Habit of Perfect Execution (Mason 59-60). Today, I think we’d call it “Habit of Best Effort,” which is how I refer to it with my children and my other students. Did you put forth your best effort? Did you do it a little bit better than you thought you could? Different students have different abilities, but each one has his or her Best, which can vary with circumstances or subject matter. My Best on the evening of co-op Day isn’t the same as my Best after a day hiking or my Best after a leisurely day hanging out with my people and enjoying myself.
- Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery Publishing Group, 2018.
- Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2001.
- Mason, Charlotte M. Home Education. Tyndale House, 1989.