It’s 6 am. My alarm clock goes off. I heave my legs out of bed, placing my feet into my slippers. Like a fawn learning to walk for the first time, I stumble into the kitchen. I switch on the coffee machine and slosh some milk into a large mug. Half asleep, I take my first sip of the hot caffeinated liquid, and everything snaps into focus. Standing in the middle of my living room, I wonder ‘How did I get here?’ The answer is simple – habit. The answer to how you prepare so well for your next exam could be just as simple.
Why do habits work?
The human brain is an incredible organ. The mass of grey jelly we carry around in our heads weighs approximately three pounds. It has over 86 billion neurons and can generate 23 watts of power (enough to power a light bulb). To conserve this precious energy our brains are designed to write and run automatic routines with little effort. We call these automatic routines habits. They’re what enable me to enjoy my first cup of coffee in the morning while half asleep.
For the brain to create a habit, it requires three elements: a trigger, a behaviour, and a reward. In my morning routine example, the trigger is getting out of bed, the behaviour is making a cup of coffee, and the reward is the first jolt of caffeine. Repeated enough times, this pattern of trigger – behaviour – reward forms a thick neural pathway in the brain and thus, a new habit is born. The secret to designing an effective habit is choosing an attractive reward, associated with the trigger and behaviour that creates a habit loop. A habit loop arises when the reward is so appealing to the mind, that in response to the trigger, it automatically initiates the associated behaviour in anticipation of the reward.
Using habits to increase your study time:
Studying for professional exams requires a lot of mental energy. It also requires discipline and time. These ingredients make your exam study a rich environment for designing and leveraging off habits. When apprentices ask me for advice on how to increase their motivation and capacity to study ahead of a challenging exam, I offer them the following plan:
- Step one: Set your morning alarm clock to go off one hour earlier than normal.
- Step two: When the alarm clock goes off, get out of bed.
- Step three: Make a cup of tea or coffee – trigger.
- Step four: Enter your study area and complete 60 minutes of exam study – behaviour.
- Step five: Enjoy a nutritious breakfast or go for a brisk walk – reward.
Repeating the above morning routine on a daily basis will typically generate 30 hours of study time in a month. Over the period of your exam preparation, this habit will provide you with an additional week of study time. It seems a simple solution, but imagine the results you could achieve with this extra time. You may need to adapt or change the trigger and reward in the above plan, to better suit your needs. Play around with them until you find the combination that works best for you.
Now I know what you’re going to say. “Michael, you’re outta your mind. There’s no way I’m going to get up an hour earlier each day, to study. I’m just not a morning person.” I typically have two responses to this protestation from apprentices, when coaching them. Firstly, I point out that they are not a morning person out of habit, and research has shown that old habits can be replaced by new ones. If that doesn’t work, I point to current research suggesting that the average adult spends 147 minutes per day on social media.
Social media platforms are engineered to exploit our brains’ neural pathways and form habits. A notification on your phone becomes the trigger; scrolling through endless TikTok videos, the behaviour; a shot of dopamine which makes you feel good, the reward. Being more intentional about your engagement with social media is proven to reduce consumption by up to 50%, thereby creating capacity for that new study habit.
Best of luck with your next exam. For more study tips and advice, check out our article on 10 Exam Preparation Mistakes to Avoid. Bonus points if you can make habits of these!