What does “Habit” mean?

A few weeks ago I took a close look at the definition of the Habits of Mind. I teased it apart with an educational audience in mind. That got me wondering about how we define the Habits of Mind for children and the general public. When we talk about “Habits of Mind”, what ideas do most people bring to mind?

For example, in the video below, one of my students, Billy, talks about the Habits of Mind being “what famous and successful people do” and goes on to say “so if I do this, I can be successful too”.

I’ve always believed Billy showed a great deal of insight  and understanding about the Habits of Mind and felt that he had “got” the Habits of Mind. Now I’m not so sure.

Now I wonder if Billy sees the Habits of Mind as something static, or something you develop and get better at? Does Billy see the Habits as something that successful people “do”, and therefor he has to start doing? Or does he see them as something that successful people do well, and therefor as something he does but has to get better at?

This distinction isn’t a trivial one. The first reflects a fixed mindset and creates a greatness gap. The second captures a growth mindset and gives Billy a chance to take control of his success and to grow and improve to become increasingly able to succeed.

All this wondering lead me to think about the word Habit. Does this word adequately capture what we want people to understand about the Habits of Mind? If the Habits of Mind are continually in development, constantly able to be improved upon, something that successful people do well, then does this match with what most people mean when they talk about Habits?

A quick search showed the definition of “Habit” to be a pattern of behavior regularly followed. Even the term “disposition” is defined as “the predominant or prevailing tendency of one’s spirt”. The common usage of these words seems to be “a repeated act”.

And it’s true, successful people do regularly follow these patterns of behaviours, they are the predominant or prevailing tendency of ones spirt. But it is so much more than that. Successful people don’t just repeatedly “do” the Habits, they use them “skillfully and mindfully”. They are good at them. They don’t just Manage their impulsivity, they manage it well and appropriately. They don’t just Strive for Accuracy, they are capable and skillful at doing this.

In this blog entry I give an overview of the ways a person can get better at the Habits of Mind.

When we use words like “skill”, “ability”, “competence” and the like, I believe people automatically see “degrees”. Even with words like intelligence and talent the common understanding is one of degrees – even if a fixed view of these degrees predominates. I’m not so sure that most people see a “habit” as something you have in degrees – something you can develop.

So, where have these rambling thoughts taken me? Perhaps to an critical question. If we are to take the Habits of Mind to a wider audience, if the imperative to improve, develop, extend, grow or mature your Habits of Mind is to be communicated effectively, might we need to come up with a term different to “Habits” to describe them? What word or words might better communicate the journey of continuous growth that Costa, Kallick and myself describe in chapter 4 of Leading and Learning with Habits of Mind (2008)?

I’d value the thoughts of everyone who reads this blog in helping me clarify and develop this idea. Having read my thoughts above, what are some of the reflections and comments you might suggest that may help bring clarity to this conundrum?




  • Kerryn

    There is something implied in the word ‘habit’ that makes me feel it is ‘optional’ – this is a ‘habit’ I can choose to adopt or not worry about. If it fits in with my current way of being, like my other habits, that’s all well and good. But if it doesn’t… Well maybe I can have another look at it later. Besides, I’m never going to be ‘that’ successful in my life any way… No one else around me really is. My parents don’t use these habits, really. I mean, if they did, we’d be super rich, right?

    I wonder, do most of us actually see truly upper eschalon, wildly successful people as having in some way to have compromised an important virtue or taken advantage of a situation at the expense of others? Which HOM is that one?!

    But aren’t we actually talking about thinking skills that we have, to varying degrees, already? If I already have the foundation skills, building on them doesn’t seem like a waste of my time, in fact it’s quite do-able. I’m working to become the best version of myself that I can become, not to become someone else’s idea of ‘successful’. To make the most of MY abilities and create my best life, a hundred times over probably! These skills could help bring a richness to my life, but one not necessarily connected to conventional ideas of ‘success’ or wealth.

    It really is a very interesting topic to contemplate. It sure does promote rambling thoughts!!