10 Tips on Forming Good Habits

by Nick Michelioudakis

Has this ever happened to you? You attend a conference, you leave feeling all motivated and determined to become a better professional, you buy books, you start reading, but after 3 or 4 days the enthusiasm wanes…

And what about your learners? This happens to them too. They often start out full of enthusiasm, doing everything you tell them to, but gradually this enthusiasm subsides…

Well, there is a solution to this problem: it is called ‘Habit-formation.’

1. Start Small

What is it you would like to do? Improve your English? Increase your reading speed? Work on your professional development? Whatever it is, if you want to establish a habit it is important you start small – very small (Fogg 2019 – p. 5). If you want to improve your English, you can set a goal of doing a gap-filling vocabulary test using Cloze Test Creator; if you want to read faster, you can practice reading a short paragraph with a tool like Cueprompter; if it is personal development you’re after, you can watch a 5-min YouTube video describing a new activity each day. What matters initially is not how much work we get done, but rather the message we send ourselves (‘I am an active learner!’).

2. Set yourself a concrete goal (routine)

When you set a goal, it is important that you can tell whether you have accomplished it or not. Goals like ‘I am going to read a little’ or ‘I am going to practice speaking’ are not good – they are just too vague. On the other hand, a goal like ‘I am going to read one article from Breaking News English (Level 3) and answer the T/F questions’ is very concrete (Clear 2018 – p. 78). Make your goals as objective and measurable as possible – e.g. ‘I want to learn more about technology; I am going to watch a 10-min screencast about how to use a Web 2.0 tool each day’.

3. Peg your habit to a salient cue

According to Clear (2018), a habit consists of three key elements: the cue – the routine – the reward. The cue is something which sets off the routine automatically; for instance, many people light a cigarette as soon as they have had a sip of coffee. Cues are very potent in triggering behaviours (Eyal 2014 – p. 41). So, if you would like to improve your vocabulary, you may tell yourself: ‘As soon as the alarm goes off (cue) I am going to do a Baamboozle Quiz [B1 level]’ [Baamboozle]. If the cue is something salient, it can trigger multiple repetitions of the habit. When I was young, I had a routine whereby every time I went into the bathroom, I would do a few pull-ups on the bars I had there. Seeing the bars acted as a cue – and it proved to be a very effective one too!

4. Reward yourself

When trying to establish a habit, it is crucial that immediately after you perform the routine, you reward yourself. The reward has to be something small; it could be something material, e.g. ‘as soon as I have finished a Kahoot! vocabulary quiz, I will have a small chocolate’ [Kahoot!] or something behavioural - ‘I will play a 2-min round of my favourite video game.’ It is important to note that the reward can be totally unrelated to the routine itself. It simply has to be a little ‘treat’ for us (Duhigg 2012 – p. 57). Some people are worried about the use of rewards – e.g. ‘If the students reward themselves for doing pronunciation practice for 2 min, this may undermine their intrinsic motivation.’ This is not the case, however; we reward ourselves for performing the habit – not for the routine itself. Very importantly, research shows that once a habit has been established, we can drop this last part; the routine becomes self-rewarding (Service & Gallagher 2017 – p. ix).

5. Write implementation intentions

How can we make sure that we persevere with our plans? One way of doubling our chances of sticking with our resolution is by writing down ‘implementation intentions’ (Service & Gallagher 2017 – p. 40). These are details of exactly what we are going to do, where, and how. The more concrete the plan, the more likely it is that we will carry it out. For instance, there is a big difference between ‘I will do some listening practice’ and ‘I will listen to a track on ELLLO and I’ll answer the Multiple Choice Questions.’ If we specify the Level of the track and the topic, this is even better. The reason for this is that executing our plan involves certain mini-decisions (e.g. ‘Where should I do it?’ ‘What should I do first?’) If we have made these decisions in advance, we can focus all our mental energy on performing the routine. [Watch: YouTube: ‘Implementation Intentions’]

6. Make sure you do not miss two days in a row

Does it matter if you fail to perform your routine one day? Well, not so much. Your chances of succeeding drop by about 5%. However, if you miss the next day as well, the figure jumps to 55% and if you miss a third day, you might as well start from the beginning (YouTube: How to Build Habits – (3:45)). It is possible – indeed it is more than likely – that things may go wrong on a particular occasion. This is not a problem – provided we make sure we stick to our habit on the very next day. But if the routine is as simple as revising vocabulary with a Quizlet set on our mobile phone, the chances of slipping up are seriously reduced.

7. Have a ‘Plan B’ to fall back on

One way of minimising the chance of missing two days in a row is to have a back-up plan. Let us say for instance that you oversleep one day, you have to rush to work, and you skip your speaking practice routine of making notes on a topic, recording a monologue using Vocaroo, listening to yourself and then doing it again. Your ‘Plan B’ can be ‘If I fail to practice speaking in the morning, I will do one of the crossword puzzles on Crossword Labs on the bus.’ Or, ‘If I fail to do my pronunciation practice, I will sing along to a song immediately after dinner’ (notice the cue in both examples!). Studies have shown that having a Plan B dramatically increases the chances of establishing your habit.

8. Only increase the time/effort later

How long does it take to establish a habit? Well, this depends on the nature of the habit, your personal circumstances, your personality, and so forth. A number of studies have shown that around two months (66 days) would be a good time period to keep in mind (Wood 2019 – p. 104). Generally speaking, you realise a habit has been established when you begin to do it automatically and you do not have to force yourself to perform the routine. Once you have reached this stage, you can start increasing the time and effort you put into your routine. You may tell yourself ‘I am going to read a whole chapter from my Spanish reader’ or ‘I am going to go to Learn English through Story on YouTube and listen to an audiobook for 15 minutes.’ Remember to do it gradually though – and remember to be flexible. If it feels like too much work, cut it down a little – maybe only listen for 5 minutes at first and you can increase the time later.

9. Stick to one habit at a time

Some people get so enthusiastic about this idea of habit formation, they try to establish too many habits at once. This is like being a juggler and moving from juggling one orange to juggling four eggs and a meat cleaver in one go. It is very unlikely to work - and failure can be painful! Establishing a habit may look like it takes a long time, but it pays off in the long term. Once a habit has become automatic, you can re-focus your energies on establishing a new one. (YouTube: How to Build Habits [7:55])

10. Think big – think ‘Keystone Habits’

Not all habits are the same. Some are more important than others because they have knock-on effects on many other aspects of our lives (Duhigg 2012 – p. 100). For instance, developing a habit of exercising has been shown to change what people eat, how much they eat, their sleeping patterns, their lifestyles etc. Similarly, developing a habit of reflecting – jotting down a few thoughts on how the day went and what things we could change or improve about the way we do things has also been shown to have a huge impact on many other aspects of our life (ibid – p. 120). This is something we definitely want to encourage our learners to do – reflect on their progress and the way they learn. It is the key to learner independence. And it is something we should be doing as well.

“In many ways, habits are the holy grail of behavioural change because they herald the possibility of automatic behaviours - reducing the amount of cognitive effort required to perform them”

[Service & Gallagher (2017) ‘Think Small’ – p. 60]


Clear, J. (2018) Atomic Habits. London: Random House
Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit. London: Random House Books
Eyal, N. (2014) Hooked. London: Penguin
Fogg, B. J. (2019) Tiny Habits. London: Virgin Books
Service, O. & Gallagher, R. (2017) Think Small. London: Michael O’Mara Books
Wood, W. (2019) Good Habits – Bad Habits. London: Pan
YouTube: How to Build Habits and Execute Effortlessly: https://tinyurl.com/29nna6z7
YouTube: Psychology and ELT – Implementation Intentions: https://tinyurl.com/nwfjnckf

Cloze Test Creator: https://tinyurl.com/wx3a2zwh
Cueprompter: https://tinyurl.com/byc392rx
Breaking News English: https://tinyurl.com/yc7zx3s9
Baamboozle: https://tinyurl.com/4yxjzh5p
Kahoot!: https://kahoot.com/
ELLLO: https://tinyurl.com/yc4697rb
Vocaroo: https://tinyurl.com/yjhpxs3k
Crossword Labs: https://tinyurl.com/2jtrn523
Learn English Through Story: https://tinyurl.com/3pm4fesr

Author Biography

Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has worked for a number of publishers and examination boards and he has given seminars and workshops in many countries.

He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines.

His areas of interest include Psychology, Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one and Humour.

For his articles and worksheets, visit his YouTube channel or his blog.