Ben Mosher, LMHC
Collegiate Coaching Services
Lead Coach- Boston
University Students, Creating Healthy Habits Now is the Key
“Next semester I am going to sleep better, I am going to go to work out more, I am not going to party as much.” Thoughts like these are common for students at the end of a challenging semester. The student usually has the best of intentions to follow through with these goals next semester, but for some reason, those changes do not happen.
At times, we start working toward these goals but fatigue sets in and the ability to focus on goals decreases, and because of the fatigue, the focus doesn’t last the whole semester. Students can begin to feel unmotivated to work towards their goals during the breaks between semesters, or maybe even forget about them altogether. The school stressors which drive students to desire to make these changes have been forgotten during the winter and summer breaks. Time with friends and family, focusing on a summer job or internship, and general life happenings can result in school being the last thing on their minds. However, it is during these breaks that there is an opportunity to start preparing and working towards those changes the student wants to see in the next semester.
Habits do not happen overnight, in fact, habits can take 66+ days to develop, and for some, it can take over 200 days! It is important to know the science behind developing habits if we want them to stick.
The start of the semester can be filled already with significant change and a booked schedule, so starting a new routine or habit during this time can be even more of a challenge. Students begin moving into their dorms, signing up for clubs, spending time with friends they didn’t see over break, finding their new classrooms, and begin learning the new material from their classes themselves.
This is a lot that needs to be prioritized, and these activities can feel more pressing or enjoyable than sitting down and organizing your weekly calendar. When starting to develop a new habit it is helpful to start at a time of consistency in your daily routine so that you can be confident you can regularly engage in that habit when planned. College life can often include being spontaneous! School pop events, last-minute concert tickets at the House of Blues, or that random sunny day in the middle of the gray New England winters. All these spontaneous events are fun and exciting, but not helpful when building new habits.
The formation of new habits requires structure, consistency, and follow-through to become a part of a routine. When there is too much adjustment happening at once our brains struggle to keep it all organized. When this happens students fall back into what feels comfortable for their daily routine to be able to focus on adjusting to all the new demands that come from the start of the semester. To be able to successfully make the desired change in your daily routine, the work cannot start at the same time as taking on all these new stimuli.
The work on these habits needs to start during the breaks and needs to be planned and practiced based on the schedule of the next semester. Let’s use sleep as an example, over the breaks it is not enough to just prioritize sleeping 8 hours a night. It should also be based on the schedule next semester. Sleeping from 2 am to 10 am is 8 hours of sleep but will not help students be better prepared for their 8 am class.
Over the summer it’s helpful to look at the schedule for the next semester and see when the most likely time to incorporate the new habit is. For example, if the goal is to be more physically active next semester, the student should look at next semester’s schedule and see what times of the day they will have available to work out. To support this routine to occur once the semester starts, we recommend that the student begins to work out at those times now, while in summer break. Do not let the unknown of the semester stop you from starting to practice your desired habit now.
Even if your schedule changes over the summer and that time no longer works for your habit, you have still spent the summer engaging with the habit at a regular time which builds more investment in that habit. This makes it easier to want to prioritize that habit fitting into your schedule at the start of the semester.
A major challenge to developing new habits is losing interest or motivation. This is true for anyone and is noticeably more challenging for students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). The novelty when getting started with a habit helps at the start with motivation, but as that novelty goes away so too does the motivation. To have consistency it is important to have other resources available when the novelty starts to go away.
It’s helpful for the student to write down the goals that they want for next semester at the end of the current semester. Have them somewhere that they are seen regularly and review them regularly. This can help the student be reminded of why they are working to make these changes. The student should talk with others about their desire to start working on these new habits. A student with a trusted social support group has additional accountability and more people to keep them motivated with their new habits.
Sometimes these goals are personal and ones that students do not want to share with friends and family. If that is the case they should consider working with a therapist and/or executive function coach. These types of support can provide empathic listening, and insights into understanding the challenge of starting these habits. These styles of support are unique relationships that can make it feel easier to talk about more personal goals.
There can also be a lot of value gained from reading about starting new habits and changing your mindset. There are a tremendous amount of books on these topics such as Mindset, The Power of Habit, and Tiny Habits. The student should look to find a style of book that aligns with their personality and goals well and use that to remain motivated to develop their new habit.
The summer and winter breaks should be a time to reset and relax, but it shouldn’t be a time where the students lose out on an opportunity to make a positive change in their routines. Use the few weeks left before the semester starts to begin doing now what you want in your schedule for the fall semester. Trust me, this is a successful strategy in habit development!
And of course, Go Sox!