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How To Work Hard Without it Being Hard Work

Thursday, 09 October 2014

Principal's Blog

As I get older, I am increasingly aware of the way in which I am governed by my habits. The thing about a habit is that we don’t really notice them: I am old enough that I can remember as a young adult first having the opportunity to see myself standing in front of an audience filmed on (as it was in those days) videotape. There were all sorts of mannerisms and nervous tics that I had no idea I was doing. It was a revelation.

So we all have habits, and we hardly notice them. Here’s the thing: whatever it is, a habit takes no effort; it happens instinctively, without will, without moral choice and it does not require willpower. The person who nervously runs their hand through their hair probably uses a fair few calories a day with the effort of doing so dozens of times an hour. For others of us, on the other hand, doing so would require a very great deal of effort - effort to remember to do so, and effort to execute the action.

Note that 1) we have habits we are not aware of; and 2) what we do habitually doesn’t take effort.

Thirdly, much literature suggests that, if you do something for 3 months, ie one whole school term, it becomes a habit. Writers on lifestyle remind us that it doesn’t take very long in the scheme of our lives for something to be turned from a carefully thought out intentional action to a thoughtless habit. Those who have driven from one place to another on autopilot will especially know what I mean.

I am willing to bet that, at some stage, every single reader of this blog has made a resolution to work harder. I have. And I am willing to bet that every single reader of this blog who made a decision to work harder thought that working harder would be harder work. It makes sense doesn’t it. But that’s wrong.

I have suddenly, and recently, realised - and it’s taken me 46 and a half years to figure this out - that working harder is only harder work during the period of time that it takes to become a habit. That’s why you can work harder now than you did 5 years ago without really noticing - unless you stop and really think about it.

So here’s the thing? What’s stopping those students at school or university who need to work harder from doing so? Surely the idea that it will be harder work forever. But it won’t be. It will only be harder for the period of time that it takes for the harder working pattern of behaviour to become a habit. After that it will just be … normal.

If students thought it only took 3 months hard work to be able to work harder for the whole of the rest of their lives, wouldn’t that make it worth them trying? If they thought that 3 months hard work would give them a headstart over the whole of the rest of the world’s population, they’d do it. If anyone really believed that working harder for 3 months would give them a headstart over the whole of the rest of the world’s population, you’d do it.

So why are some students not that hard working: surely it’s because they don’t realise that all they have to do is turn harder working into a habit

If any of us were to say to students well known for their economy with effort that we wanted to talk to them about their habits, they’d probably have thought that we  were referring to their tendency to pick their nose, or to send texts while someone was talking to them. We all tend to think of our habits as being bad habits: but what if we were all to take our ability to form habits and turn it to positive outcomes. To any student readers, practise for 3 months, and turn harder, or smarter, work into a habit, and you will be able to work harder, or smarter, as a habit, without extra effort for years

All we need to do is to encourage each other to establish a beneficial habit for three months…

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