Math as a habit
Making math a daily habit
Just over 10 years ago, New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg wrote a book called “The Power of Habit”1
In it, Duhigg explains why habits exist and how they can be changed.
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Duhigg’s Three-Step Habit Loop
In the book, which is a fun and easy read, Duhigg puts together a simple model for how behaviors happen.
The model is that in every behavior, three things that must take place
habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop
And then he breaks down how to establish habits and gives many examples you can use. Eventually, he writes a whole other book to give you even more information about how to put it to use.2
After reading the book, we implemented new habits into our family life.
Helping our kids do math every day
Our kids love math, so helping them do what they love seemed like a good daily goal.
However, life often got in the way, and we didn’t do enough math for them.
Making “doing math” a daily habit was a way to show them respect and honor their interests.
Making Math a Habit
Once both kids had shown enough interest in math that it was apparent to us that we should give them more math, we decided to make doing daily math a habit.
The first thing we tried was being organized and establishing a “Time” Cue.
Time Cue - Math at the same time every day
We tried to make it so that we would sit down and “do math” every day at 6 pm.
I put it in our family’s electronic calendar and had a reminder notification go off at the exact time every day.
Which somewhat worked, but mostly didn’t.
Sometimes, preparing dinner would take too long, so we started math at 6:30 pm.
Sometimes, we needed to go to bed early because of a [thing] the next day, so we had to do baths/shower early, so we started math at 5:30 pm on those days.
Sometimes, we were out of the house and didn’t have our math.
Sometimes, the kids were sick and napped in the afternoon, so we did math at 7:30 pm.
It slowly became a running joke that the notification was a notification of failure to do math rather than an invitation to sit down and do math.
Our “time cue” for the math habit was not working.
The next thing we tried was having a floating “Checkbox Streak” cue.
Checkbox Streak Cue - Math every day
Given our schedule was a bit more varied than we had realized, we decided to establish a “streak”.
Growing up, I was a big fan of the comedian Seinfeld, so I was delighted to find something related to habit-making called the “Seinfeld Strategy.”
James Clear, who wrote a book about habits - Atomic Habits, shares this from Seinfeld3
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”4
From this, we decided to start a streak and keep count.
It’s been a few years, but we either made it to 108 days or 180 days of 10-30 minutes of math a day.
The progress and the fun we had were spectacular.
But, and it’s a big one, the moment we fell off the streak, it broke completely.
If you haven’t experienced it yourself, it’s one of the downfalls of this strategy.
Going back to having a 1-day streak compared to a 10-day, 50-day, 100-day, etc. streak is so daunting that most people (us included) find it hard to start again.
The guilt of failing the streak really hurts and that was it.
We didn’t do math for a while.
The kids still wanted to do the math, but things came up, and it was easy to say, “We’ll just do a bit extra tomorrow, and let’s not do it now.”
The next thing we tried was habit stacking.
Habit Stacking - Do Math after something that already happens every day
Continuing to look into Habit Formation books, I found one called “Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness”5 by S.J. Scott.
Though a bit of a funny title, the main idea I took away is that it’s hard to start a new habit.
The solution is adding a new habit as part of an existing one.
One of the examples, if memory serves, is that you (probably) already brush your teeth every day.
So if you want to start drinking a glass of water in the morning as a new habit (which you should be doing if you’re not :) ), is that you put a glass next to your bathroom sink, and as soon as you finish brushing your teeth you drink a glass of water.
Now your two habits are tied together.
The “Cue” is an already existing habit that will happen automatically and eventually grow to encompass your new habit (drinking a glass of water).
So we took that idea and tied the “doing math” habit to the “doing bathtime at night” habit.
While one kid is doing their bathtime routine, the other is doing math. Then when they finish, they swap places.
This worked for us.
It might work for you!
Try it out
Try to think of a “habit” your family already has in place and see if adding “math time” at the end of that habit would make sense.
I’ve heard from families that have the following as their cues
after walking the dog at night
right before dinner
when [parent] gets home
when [child-help] leaves
after their tv/screen time is over
Try it out and let me know how it goes :)
That’s all for today :) For more Kids Who Love Math treats, check out our archives.
All the best,
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James Clear update “UPDATE: One year after posting this, I found out that Seinfeld has openly said that he didn’t come up with this idea and hasn’t even claimed to used the strategy himself. His brief reply is here. Regardless, I still believe this to be a sound strategy and so I am keeping the article posted.”