Are Bad Habits Holding You Back in College?

Are Bad Habits Holding You Back in College?

Before you start your next assignment, take a quick assessment on your progress in your course. Would you say you were doing your very best? Did you meet your deadlines? Were you pressed for time on the readings? Are you being held back by something?

If there are areas of your class work that are lagging, perhaps there are habits that are preventing you from doing well. Stumbling blocks are all around us, coming from external and internal sources – like ingrained habits, which can be hard to break.This involves much more than saying you’d like to do something different – you have to identify a specific habit and then practice a new behavior.

How Habits are Formed and Replaced

Habits are a repetitive behavior that becomes an automated function of the brain. That explains why you can drive the same route day after day and over time, not consciously think about the specifics of that route. A blog post by Eruditio Loginquitas of the Office of Mediated Education at Kansas State University, describes the three steps that are involved in the habit creation process. First, the brain is given a cue to use an automated (habitual) procedure. Next is the routine, where the behavior is performed repeatedly. Finally, there is a reward or source of motivation that perpetuates the continued use of this behavior. For students, the reward for utilizing a habitual behavior is that their method of addressing schoolwork and class requirements becomes a routine that begins to feel comfortable over time. The only problem is that this routine may not be serving you well.

A method of identifying what your present habits are, as a means of assessing whether they are effective or ineffective, is to keep a habit journal. Through the use of journaling you can better determine what habitual behaviors you use with your classwork. For those habits that are ineffective, you’ll need to find a replacement behavior. As an example, if you have a poor time management plan, a new behavior would be the use of a calendar to schedule your tasks. You’ll need to use this more than once as it is only a routinely used behavior that creates a habit and it takes an estimated 21 days to change or replace a bad habit.

The Most Common Bad Habits of College Students

Consider some of the most common ineffective habits among college students and create a plan to change any of these you’ve identified as being a barrier to your success as a student.

Poor Time Management

Have you missed an assignment or turned in one late? If this happens on a regular basis you need to review how you are managing your time. Keep a time management log for a week and note your daily activities. You may be surprised at how you spend your time and in the process, identify areas where the misuse of time has become habitual. For example, if you discover that checking email throughout the day is taking up a significant amount of time but you have been doing it for so long that you aren’t aware of it, it has become a habit. One of the most important time management techniques for students is to allocate time for all of your tasks – from studying to research and writing your papers. You can accomplish this by using a calendar to schedule time each day for your school work and also keep track of due dates for all assignments.


At the start of the week it may seem as if you have a lot of time available to complete your assignments and projects. Do you find yourself putting off your work until the deadline looms? If you are in a habit of doing this, you may feel rushed at the end of the week and not perform your best simply because time has become limited. In my experience, this is when plagiarism is most likely to occur – when students wait and then are unable to complete their work so they copy and paste information from existing sources. To avoid procrastination you need to learn to become organized. If you know what needs to be done you are less likely to put it off, especially if you follow your time management plan.

Getting Stuck in a Rut

Do you ever find that you are in a persistent bad mood or feeling negative about your progress in class? If you are not doing well another possibility is that you have gotten stuck in the way you view your potential to learn and your academic skills. Some students tend to focus on the negative aspects of their feedback and lose self-confidence in their ability to improve and do better. It is a habitual pattern that gets reinforced any time that a less than perfect grade or feedback is received. In my post, Why a Positive Attitude Matters, I addressed online students; however, this is applicable to all students. Your attitude is a reflection of your self-belief and a negative attitude can quickly derail your efforts. One method of creating a positive belief about yourself is to look for sources of inspiration and motivation, and visualize completion of everything you have set out to accomplish.

Ignoring Your Well-Being

If you habitually do not take care of your physical well-being, it will likely reduce your ability to deal with stress and the demands of a busy week. Do you ever feel caught in a cycle of being run down, not having energy to participate in physical activity, and you aren’t taking time to sleep?  It’s easy to put off any form of physical activity if you have not scheduled time for it or get into a habit of not allowing enough time for rest and recovery. As this continues you may find that any potential stressor, no matter how seemingly insignificant, becomes unmanageable. You can combat the potential for stress with the development of a plan for physical fitness and well-being, which in turn can improve your school work, focus, and overall performance.

Not Studying Effectively

Do you ever find that you have gotten into a habit of skimming through the course materials, right before an assignment is due? This is an ineffective habitual studying routine because you are not actively processing or working with the information read, which means that your reading comprehension or ability to understand the meaning of what you’ve read will be low. If you read without a purpose you will likely not do well with assignments or exams, especially if you studied for the first time on the night before a test. What would help is use of a note-taking strategy as it has been proven to improve reading comprehension and increase retention of the information because it’s an active form of learning. There are five strategies to choose from, including the Cornell, mapping, charting, sentence, and outline note-taking methods. Which one you use will depend upon the depth of notes you want to take.

Just Getting By with Class

Do you ever try to get through your classes by just “winging” it? This is a habit that prevents many students from being successful. These students begin the class without reviewing the syllabus to learn about their instructor’s expectations and/or don’t read the course materials – and then participate in discussions without relating their responses to the relevant course topics and concepts. It is a habitual problem of not being prepared and is often associated with a belief that a minimal effort is all that is needed. A problem with this habitual behavior is that it may be easy to feel overwhelmed when you reach a point where you are not doing well in class and need to catch up. While you may be able to “get by” in some classes and earn a passing grade, this habit may ultimately prevent you from realizing your full potential because you have not gained the necessary subject matter knowledge.

After reviewing the list of common bad habits, do you recognize any behaviors that you may need to change or alter? If so, keep track of your activities for a week – from prep time to study time to completing your assignments – and determine what routine behaviors are ineffective or getting in the way of your success. While changing a habit takes time and practice, the result is that you may perform better as a student.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

Photo © Tomas Rodriguez/Corbis

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