Changing Goals into Habits

Does it ever boggle your mind how some students seem to have developed healthy learning habits and yet others perpetually struggle with the basics, like checking their email regularly, cleaning out their backpack, following through on assignments, or showing up for appointments?

While I know that the lives of young people are busy, hectic, and often over scheduled, as a teacher, I am often wondering what I can do to better scaffold those essential “learning skills” that often get overlooked. While I assess these skills come report card time, many years I have pondered what more I could be doing to explicitly teach these skills, especially since I am explicitly giving students a grade.

So when I saw Art Markman’s Smart Change book show up in my Instagram feed from a friend, I had to dive in and explore what this book was all about. How could I use habits to better teach my students how to find success in not just my course, but in all of their academic learning.

Markman’s book unpacks five essential tools that anyone can use to create lasting change in their life:

  1. Optimize your goals: be really clear with what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it, and how you will know you have succeeded.
  2. Tame the Go System: figure out how to replace old behaviours with new, beneficial ones.
  3. Harness the Stop System: while our brains don’t like stopping things, we can figure out how to tame the factors that make it harder to start new, positive habits.
  4. Manage your environment: change the stimulus around you to create the outcomes you desire.
  5. Engage your neighbours: leverage the social power around you to influence your behaviour in a good way.


In past courses, I have experimented with goal setting with mixed results. Since reading this book, I have a more clear––and perhaps more possible––vision for how to do this aspect of my course differently. I would love to have students craft a learning skill goal each term (our learning skills are organization, independent work, collaboration, initiative, self-regulation, reflection), as well as a curricular goal related to our course. Based on those learning skills, I would love to create a bank of possible habits that if students practiced regularly (as in everyday), they would likely improve that learning skill.

For example, Alisha sets the goal to improve her organization, as she is always forgetting important appointments, her belongings at school, and the deadlines to her assignments. She decides that this term, she wants to narrow in and optimizes her goal to be: “I will remember to hand in all my assignments before the deadline” and focus on her belongings and the appointments part with a different goal. So, Alisha consults the bank of “organization habits” and chooses which habit best aligns with her goal. Her habit options are:

  1. Review my agenda every morning and evening
  2. Add every homework item and assignment in agenda before leaving each class
  3. Consult a checklist for stuff I need to bring to school every morning before packing my bag
  4. Cross reference my agenda with a friend every day
  5. Schedule time every day to work on upcoming assignments

After considering her goal and her needs, she decides that habit #1 is the best start for her and Alisha commits to practicing this habit every day for three weeks, until this habit is automated, and she can move on and chose another habit to help her achieve her goal.

Personally, I think the idea of breaking down a goal into actionable habits is very digestible and manageable for young people. One of the challenges I found when students set goals with me in the past was that they either set outcome goals (“I will get a level 4 in every class”) or they didn’t have a clear path for how to get where they wanted to get (“but how can I remember to hand in all my assignments on time?”). By focusing on process goals (and allowing the good grades to be the byproducts of that process) and giving concrete steps for achieving that goal, students––I hope––will have a more clear path for how to get where they want to be.

I also really appreciated the idea of finding supports within the classroom community. If students are setting goals related to the Learning Skills, it would be prudent to connect all the students working on organization and gather up all the students setting goals related to self-regulation in another group (except that would be a mighty interesting group, no?) and allow students to share strategies, successes, tips, and challenges with each other as a way to spread “goal contagion” as Markman puts it.

Once students are well-versed in using these habits and setting goals, I would like to translate this practice into a curricular goal…perhaps in January once students have had one report card already, have a clear sense of their academic successes and necessary next steps. It would be ideal to remove a scaffold here and have students develop their own habits and focus on one every three weeks or so to help them get closer and closer to their desired end result.

I envision learning conferences to look a lot different if students were really working these habits and reflecting more with their parents about how they can support them harnessing their Stop System, managing their environment, more deliberately celebrating their process rather than focusing so much on the products.

For anyone who wants a different take on setting goals with students and better supporting their process of change and growth, reading Smart Change is a fantastic habit to get into.

2 thoughts on “Changing Goals into Habits

  1. Awesome insight (as always!) Celeste and thank you for introducing me to Art Markman. Can’t wait to “dive” in. There are many layers here and I love it. The idea of anchoring goals in Learning Skills is genius, as is the distinction between “outcome” and “process” goals. I look forward to following your journey and the approaches you develop and take to fostering and the process for each student.

    School wide, we have embraced a reflective and goal oriented approach to Learning Skills. Your post is now an essential resource that I look forward to sharing!

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