Use the most important habits of successful college students to make college easier for you + learn to implement new habits without fail.
Before we talk about habits of successful college students, I have an embarrassing confession to make. One of my goals has been to exercise daily. I have had this goal for…I don’t know…3 years…and I’m successful 10% of the time. I’m totally NOT rockin’ this goal, but I am owning it.
I’m thinking maybe you can relate. 🙂
Going back to school means developing a lot of new habits you didn’t have before. Adapting any new habit is challenging! Good habits are a part of how to be successful in college (and life, just saying!). I have been experimenting with a lot of strategies to increase my own success rate with daily exercise in hopes of sharing my findings with you!
Studying and exercise aren’t the same things, but they have the same issues:
- they are not immediately pleasurable (translation: it doesn’t feel good while you do it)
- the long-term benefits are huge (translation: they are meaningful and important)
- starting a new study/exercise routine is hard (translation: if you’re struggling, you are normal)
First, let’s talk about how we go wrong with developing habits, how to make better habits, and then review the top habits of successful college students. You can create awesome study habits, even if you hate to study.
Where we go wrong with new habits
I mentioned my success rate for the past 3 years has been about 10%. As you know from Crush Exam Fears with this 2-Step Strategy, I have been really focused on my health, so my compelling reason for regular exercise got a lot bigger. Being analytical, I thought through all of the things I had been trying, seeking to understand why it isn’t working. Here is how I approached exercise:
- Map out my ideal workout plan for the week
- Schedule the activities on my calendar in specific time slots
- Do really good on day 1
- Do pretty good on day 2
- Skip day 3
- Skip day 4
- Keep on skipping!
This process is not a bad one (except steps 5-7)! I always recommend mapping out an action plan and scheduling things in your calendar to ensure you have the time to do it.
The problem was I continually worked against my plan and actively chose not to complete it.
First of all, let’s talk about why we do this because it is completely normal. Do not beat yourself up if you can relate to my story and find yourself choosing against your good plans. We’re all humans, doing our best, right?
Our brain has primitive wiring working to keep us safe and work efficiently. Part of keeping us safe is avoiding danger. Makes sense when danger means tigers and bears and fire. But the primitive part of our brain can’t tell the difference between what is really dangerous and what isn’t.
Changing the way you behave every day (that’s efficiency) is seen as a danger. New == danger! Your new study habits and my new exercise habits set off an alarm in the primitive part of your brain. We have to tap into the more advanced part of our brain through conscious thought and logic to reassure ourselves studying is not, in fact, dangerous.
Here are a couple of key tips I learned to quickly and easily help me stick to my daily habits with 90% success. Put them to work for yourself and develop the same habits of successful college students.
1. Adjust the level of difficulty
Your old habits are very easy for you. Remember, this is the brain’s efficiency at work. Stopping an established habit can be just as challenging as starting a new habit and requires thinking about the difficulty of both our old habits and our new habits and make adjustments to each.
Make old habits harder
Your old habits are easy to stick with. If you want to stop or change one of them you have to make it more difficult. Start with the old habit that is taking up the time you need for the new one.
TV was my old habit. I had an established routine in the evenings of bedtime routines with kids, collapsing on the couch and flipping on the TV. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a bad habit. I really enjoyed relaxing this way in the evenings and I will continue to watch my favorite shows. But this habit was the trigger keeping me from exercising every evening. So I did a couple of things to make the habit harder:
- Closed the doors to the TV cabinet. To watch TV I have to physically walk across the room and open the doors. Not a big deal, but it is just difficult enough to make me more conscious of what I am doing.
- Put the remotes in a basket out of sight. I have to reach under our coffee table, pull out the basket, and find the remote. Not hard to do, but again, it requires conscious effort and a decision to do it.
- Unplug the TV. I haven’t actually done this, but it would be genius. Easy to plug it back in, but requires an extra step.
Neither of these is a big shift to my old habit, and you don’t need to think of a monumental change to how you are doing things. The smaller changes are more impactful.
What is your go-to procrastination habit? Do you flip on the TV? Open up all the apps on your phone? Go somewhere?
Identify one old habit standing in your way and make a couple of small tweaks so it is a little bit harder to do. Smartphones are a huge time-wasting habit. Check out some tips to help you be more productive on your phone without smashing it into tiny bits.
Make new habits easier
Next, we need to make some small tweaks in the opposite direction to make our new habits of successful college students a little easier. I like to think of this as setting yourself up for success. Here are some changes I made:
- Make sure my yoga mat is out and cleared and the elliptical machine is ready
- Set out clothes the night before
- Download podcasts to my phone
- Have my earbuds ready
These are four really easy changes, but made the process of getting started extraordinarily easier. Because, let’s be real: when you don’t want to do something, any excuse will work. “Ugh. I have to unroll my yoga mat and get clothes out of the drawer. I don’t have time for that. PASS!”
By taking two minutes each night to do these four things, getting started the next day was cake. I removed those excuses ahead of time and set myself up to be successful with my new habits. But then came the GAME CHANGER…
2. Choose a Better beginning
Hi. My name is Jessica and I am a Type-A perfectionist.
Shew. Feels good to put it out there. 🙂
Remember earlier when I mentioned the first step in my approach to exercise was to map out my ideal workout plan for the week? This was the #1 thing holding me back, and I see this happening to so many of my students when it comes to their study schedules.
Maybe it’s just us perfectionists, but we think the habit needed is the optimized version. We imagine what the absolute best plan would be and make it our beginning. That’s like starting a business with the expectation that you will earn 100K the first month. That isn’t a realistic starting place.
It’s a terrible strategy, and I am the worst offender.
Instead, think about all of the smaller habits it takes to get to the optimized version. And then start with just one or two smaller habits. Once they become the norm add the next one, and the next one, and work on optimizing things later on.
I identified these as my beginning habits:
- setting out my clothes and gear each night
- showing up every day for 5 minutes of exercise
I was missing the mark so often because my plan included 30-45 minutes of exercise every day. Going from 0 to 30 was too big of a change for me. But I could show up every day for five minutes. I can make five minutes to do just about anything.
What I found is often when I got started I wanted to keep going.
Some days I didn’t. On those days I set the timer for 5 minutes and then I quit and felt good about showing up.
The real habit I focused on was daily progress, or what you might call just showing up. I needed the habit of starting every day, not optimized follow-through.
When I made this shift I hit my goal almost every day. I was sick for a couple of weeks and gave myself some slack on the worst days, but then I came back with a vengeance.
If you are interested in building the habits of successful college students and taking your habits to the next level, check out Melyssa Griffin’s podcast interview with James Clear. Every word in this is solid gold! I felt like James put words to all of the disconnected ideas floating around in my brain.
Daily Habits of Successful college students
Alright, friend. Now you know how to set yourself up to begin a new habit successfully, so let’s talk about what the real habits are that successful college students stick with on a daily basis.
- go to class every day
- study on your own every day
- take notes when you are learning (during lectures, videos, reading, etc)
- set up a note-taking system, like OneNote
- get focused
- turn off the TV
- turn off your phone
- try noise-canceling earbuds
- create a productive study space
- focus on cultivating commitment
- plan for your assignments
- start a to-do list
- maintain a calendar
- email your professor and ask for help
- work on your memorization skills
- stop multitasking
- get access to my resource library (there are tons of goodies to help you build better habits)
health & Wellbeing
You have to support your body if you expect your body to support you. While these feel less collegiate, they are power habits of successful college students. Here are some ideas to help you focus on a healthier you who has the energy to do everything you need to:
- get 8 hours of sleep
- wake up at the same time every day
- wake up early
- eat real food (like actual vegetables, fruit, nuts, and meat)
- cook regularly
- drink lots of water
- cut back on caffeine
- cut back on sugar
- move your body each day
- think a positive thought about yourself each day
- practice gratitude
- look for one funny thing each day
Which small habits have helped you be an awesome college student? If you’re focused on beating procrastination as your big habit, don’t miss out on the #1 way to beat procrastination.
Try It Yourself: 20-minute Challenge
- Choose one current habit you want to break or modify and make one small tweak so it becomes harder for you to do. Focus on small adjustments.
- Choose one new habit you want to create. What is the first thing you need to do? Start with one small step.
- Not sure what to focus on? I suggest daily study. Start with just 5 minutes every single day. For some extra motivation, join the 7-Day Study Challenge.