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Rethinking your CPD: Getting the Learning Habit


You have probably heard about the book ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ by Stephen Covey. More recently The Health Foundation published a paper on ‘The habits of an improver’. I encourage you to read both.

In both cases the authors put an emphasis on developing habits. This contrasts with the language we normally use when discussing our Continuing Professional Development (CPD).  We typically talk about acquiring new knowledge and developing new skills. But as the Health Foundation paper states ‘knowing something or even being skilled at doing something does not of itself lead to improvement. Only when people habitually and reliably use their knowledge and skills in the real-world context ... will behaviours change’.

Habits can be good or bad; arguably they are all difficult to break.

So what is a habit? They are repeated actions that over time become automatic and thus are difficult to stop. Repetition is the key. To quote author Hilary Hinton "Zig" Ziglar: “repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.” 

Unstructured repetition may not lead to improved learning. Just think about all those times you have held a £10 note. Which author is pictured on it? Most people don't know the answer. Repetition leads to increased opportunities for learning to occur. Whether learning occurs depends on the type of information that has to be remembered and the attention given by the learner.

Habits can be good or bad; arguably they are all difficult to break. According to Gretchen Rubin ‘habits are the invisible architecture of daily life’ and ‘it takes self-control to establish good habits’. If we are to get into the habit of learning, we need to plan, and we need to monitor what we do. If we view learning as similar to habit formation, we need to seek to establish actions that we will undertake routinely in a particular context. For example: learning a language isn’t remembering new vocabulary. Instead it is learning to recall certain phrases, in response to particular situations.

Having a plan may not be enough. To build new habits requires self-control.

To turn our learning into habits we need to identify contextual cues, but it is often the case that we are working in changeable environments. So in reality we must create a series of responses to a range of situations, all of which need to be conditioned separately. If you are looking to build a habit for exercising you may seek cues that get you heading for the gym.

But if the gym is closed or the exercise equipment is broken, will these cues trigger a response that remains focused on your original goal (e.g. when the gym is shut then I go running). This is where we need to plan and monitor if we are to build habits from our learning activities. Does our learning provide enough opportunities to practice? Does it link the trained response to realistic, variable cues? Do we encounter environmental cues we were not expecting, and need to update our training accordingly?

As many of us will have discovered, having a plan may not be enough. To build new habits requires self-control. This can be viewed as drawing upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up (so called ‘ego depletion’). Established habits are normally carried out automatically and in doing so exhaust less willpower. Initially this automation builds slowly, and then much more rapidly. 

It takes around 66 days days to form a new habit.

This has two main implications for us as learners. Firstly the first few days of building a new habit are the most important; persevering with your learning will pay off (but it may not feel like this initially). Secondly, the more you repeat the learning activities the less willpower will be required to perform it again. In other words it gets easier. The average (median) time it takes to form a new habit is around 66 days; but also depends on both the individual and nature of the task.

When we stick to a plan (the monitoring bit mentioned earlier) we sometimes promise ourselves a reward. Here Gretchen Rubin highlights that the rewards we choose could have unintended consequences.  For example, if you were trying to eat more healthily then having a reward of a chocolate bar teaches you that you are not doing the activity for its own sake, but to earn the reward after being deprived of the food you really want.

To support your learning you need to find rewards that reinforce the habit your learning is building. This could be to buy a new pair of headphones once you are building a habit of learning from podcasts; or buying the latest book from a thought leader you admire after completing your minimum CPD for the year. 

In summary, and to quote from a recent blog from Scott H Young: ‘Above all, by seeing the connection between learning and habits, you can see how much of your life is made up of similar patterns. Your thoughts, emotions, relationships and identity also operate on similarly practiced loops of cue and response. See the patterns, and you can start to change them.’

John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design, National Institute for Health Research

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.