Learning at Home: Tips to Improve your Habits

Edited by Winston Yu

After a period of studying at home, it is not difficult to find that there is a large difference between studying at home and studying at school. While studying at home, there are countless temptations to prevent students from completing their school work. Mobile phones, computer games, and even soft beds are full of temptations. 

Usually when at home, people are in a relaxed state, which can make it difficult to concentrate on “work.” Although most students have developed their own study plans, students who want to actually complete their school work efficiently need strong self-control. But not everyone has strong self-control. This has caused many students to delay their work.  

Dan S, a grade 11 student at WCI shared this in an interview: “Although the teacher assigned the learning task very early, I will always delayed working on it until the submission date.”

Graphic made by Winston Yu.


Our self-control is not the key to solving this problem. Harvard has a famous course called Positive Psycholog and Leadership, which is taught by Tal Ben-Shahar. At the beginning of this course, he uses his own experience to tell his students that everyone will be troubled by the same problem: being unable to complete their plans efficiently and on time. He describes his own experiences with balancing school and extra-curricular activities, saying that when he was at university, he thought he might be more productive if he stopped playing squash. He did this and he became far less productive. Tal uses his own experience to show how students actually have the same troubles in accomplishing their own plans.

Tal’s story is not unique. There are many students who have the same experience. Even Hongyun Xu, a WCI graduate who is pursuing a double degree at the University of Waterloo, faces the inability to complete his study plan on time when studying at home. When asked about this, he said, “There are no teachers supervising and no sense of tension in school. I play computer games almost every day until late at night and then directly sleep until 12pm the next day. I know this is not good for me, but I have no control over my behaviour.”

Tal’s story shows us two interesting facts. It is not self-control that guarantees a person to work efficiently. It’s really habits that make people work efficiently.

Think about your activities after getting up: dressing, walking to the bathroom, brushing your teeth. Even if you may still be sleepy, you can still execute this set of procedures with great precision and little effort. Does this process require a lot of self-control? No, it’s basically not needed, right? 

In school, learning does not actually require much self-control. And when students start to study at home autonomously, the curriculum arrangement becomes free, and you lose those passive habits you developed at the sound of bells along with moves through the school, and you have to plan your own study routines. That is when you need self-control.

 The next difficulty students face is that human self-control is limited.

Graphic made by Winston

Many people do not know that self-control is as limited as muscle strength. This conclusion has been proven by a large number of psychological experiments. This theory was originally proposed by psychologist Roy Baumeister. This theory outlines the Strength Model of Self-control and explains why self-control is a limited resource. It also discusses why self-control is related to the completion of healthy behaviors and concludes with some practices of strengthening self-control.

For example: Imagine that when you change your locker, you move a stack of heavy books, and after you struggle to move from this locker to another locker, your arm has been bearing these weights for a long time. After that, your arms are sore, your back aches, and in severe cases, you may not even be able to lift a glass of water because your muscles are exhausted. Self-control is the same. We have to face all kinds of temptations in our daily lives: a lot of new snacks bought on the table yesterday, discounted video games on Steam, notifications from mobile phones, et cetera.

We must repeatedly resist these temptations to focus on important goals such as learning and fitness. Every time you refuse a temptation, your self-control will consume a point. Our self-restraint, like muscles, can’t bear these “weights” for a long time. If you face too many temptations, there will always be a moment when we will be tired and unable to resist, letting overeating and staying up late to play video games dominate our lives.

But just as our muscles can be exercised, so can our self-control. Self-control exercises and muscles are slightly different. Self-control is actually becoming more and more powerful depending on the good habits acquired. In a sense, strong self-control is composed of a small habits. On the other hand, it can also be said that the habitual behaviours in people’s daily life are inadvertent self-control.

Then, as mentioned above, the problem of completing a study plan at home becomes how to develop good habits.

What is preventing us from forming good habits? The reason is that the habit development plan is too complicated, and too many people get too anxious, and that people  want to see significant changes in the short term. The reason why we are born short-sighted and like instant feedback and satisfaction is because an invisible enemy is living in the brain and making trouble. You must first realize its existence before you can defeat it. 

People were extremely deficient in food millions of years ago. Our ancestors had to find food in order to survive better. In this case, the brains of our ancestors needed to remind them to find food all the time. The primitive human brain will always secrete a pheromone to prompt our ancestors to have short-term satisfaction with food. This satisfaction will prompt primitive people to continually put down the work at hand to find food. But we are no longer primitive people. We have evolved and developed higher-level control, allowing us to plan and to give up short-term benefits to achieve long-term goals. But that original part of the brain has not died out. It is still fighting for control of the body at all times, prompting us to tirelessly seek immediate satisfaction. It is why you suddenly think, “Let’s play video games for a while!” after working on school work for a short time. Or why you think you need a snack even after you have just eaten a lot of dinner.Or why you go to Youtube when you intended to start school work when you opened your laptop. The essence of these things is the original brain making trouble.

 To defeat it, you have to master the principle of habit. 

“Habit” does not consist of only one part. Its composition is complex and diverse. When we understand its structure, we can better integrate our own habits. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg thinks habits are built in four parts: Cue, Routine, Reward, and Belief.

Graphic made by Winston

Cue is the reason for triggering the habit. You can imagine that Cue is the trigger of the pistol. Press the trigger and the bullet will fire. The trigger for brushing your teeth in the morning is the action of getting up; going to lunch, because the time has come; reading before bed, because you are lying in bed covered in a blanket. The cue itself is not good or bad, and it is the initial behaviour that decides what you’re used to. 

TIP #1: For high school students, we can create a small “ritual” before each time we study. For example, students can play favourite Parlour music before they start learning or they can make a mark on their calendar to indicate that they want to start this day of study. A sense of ritual is essential for building a Cue. These small “rituals” can take various forms, and may even wash your mind before learning.

Graphic made by Winston

Routine is unconscious. For example, when you turn on the computer, you first open Youtube to watch a video and others must turn on their phone again before bed to see one last message. In the process of establishing new habits, our self-control is used to correct these old behaviors that caused procrastination and replace them with new triggers. You can easily form a Routine by repeating the good Cue that you want to keep for a long time. Of course, this process is painful, and you may be easily knocked down by temptation. Here I will share a little trick with you. 

TIP #2: When you are tempted to avoid school work, just calm down, take a deep breath, and close your eyes for three minutes. In these three minutes, think about what you should do. If you still don’t want to study after these three minutes, then do something you like first. This process may be difficult, so you could need some extra rewards to stimulate your enthusiasm.

Graphic made by Winston

Rewards are a crucial part of habit development, and they are often overlooked by people. Why are bad habits easy to form and difficult to change? Because their rewards are often immediate and obvious: which is the case for playing games. Good habits are difficult to form, precisely because the short-term rewards are not obvious enough. The daily activities of reading, fitness, and practicing musical instruments often takes a long time to see the effect. Some people are naturally inspired by these processes, but many people are not. 

TIP #3: David Wang, is a sophomore student at Wilfrid Laurier University who got the highest score in his math class in the first year of the university. To reach a personal goal, he created a system for himself and stuck with it: “I wanted to buy a set of audio equipment last year but I don’t think I can easily get this expensive thing. So I set a rule for myself that whenever I finished a math assignment in the class, I put twenty dollars in the piggy bank. Although the money I saved at the end was still not enough to buy that set of audio equipment, I still use it as a reward for my highest score. I still bought it. “

Graphic made by Winston

Belief is the inner motivation that supports you to build habits. Kelly McGonig, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, wrote a book entitledThe Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It”. The definition of willpower is “the ability to do what you really want to do when part of you really doesn’t want to do it.” This sentence can explain why you need a strong belief, because you already have some “power.” What you are doing now is what ordinary people do not want to do. In short, you want to be a better person. Faith allows you to get positive spiritual feedback when you develop good habits. At the same time, the stronger your beliefs, the more you can endure the pain and repetition that occurs in the process of change. Kelly McGonig says, “If you do it with awareness and intention, it can make you stronger. The strength develops over time, even if you feel temporarily weaker. But I think this only works when you have this mindset, and feel like you are consciously choosing to “use” your willpower. If you feel like you are being drained by everything you “have” to do (or not do), that lack of autonomy is even more stressful than exercising self-control.” This sentence reminds high school students that you must not let go when you are tired, and the firm willpower has always been your backing.

TIP #4: Simply put, it is not difficult to strengthen one’s beliefs. Students can use the help of external forces. Here is a very simple method: write the keywords you need as a sticky note and paste it in a conspicuous place such as the door handle of the bedroom and the mirror. Inadvertently seeing the hints of these keywords can inadvertently strengthen a person’s beliefs. In addition, if you can, you can meditate on your plans for tomorrow and what to do today before going to bed and after getting up. This effect will be better.

In this book another important point is learning to be a friend and mentor to ourselves, rather than equating self-control with self-criticism, as this is the attitude that she advocates for. The education we receive from childhood and as we age, places too much emphasis on strict self-discipline and self-criticism, but rarely teaches us how to encourage ourselves. What ultimately makes us stand out is not just the determination to change. We should face our own failures. Sometimes people always feel regret after failure. At this time everyone needs their own encouragement. People will not comfort themselves most of the time. It is also very important to give yourself some encouragement after losing so that you don’t lose confidence. Please tell yourself whenever you fail: “Come on, there is still a chance, come! Think about it! How can I do better next time?”

After understanding these ideas, students can start to make their own plans and then start to change step by step. Studying at home will become less difficult. If we can complete our plan on time every day, it will become easier to achieve a satisfactory result at home. The most important thing is not to stop, to become a better person step by step.

Finally, I will give you my favourite quote by Professor Tal Ben-Shahar: “Incremental change is better than ambitious failure.”