The valley of potential

Managing expectations around routines

Hey πŸ‘‹

Hope your Thursday is going well and you're noticing some examples of means-end conflation. This week's big idea sticks with the theme of routines, and begins to dig into implementation issues...

Big Idea πŸ‰

Routines can be powerful tools for learning. However, they take time and effort to establish, and typically come with an initial dip in performance. During this phase, it can be tempting to give up. Let's break it down:


At their best, routines can:

  • Increase time and attention for learning

  • Reduce the behaviour management burden

  • Increase student motivation, confidence, and safety

  • Free up of teacher cognitive capacity to monitor learning and be more responsive

However, these benefits only emerge when routines become automated. The amount of time it takes for a routine to automate depends on its complexity and how frequently we run it. Simple routines can take 20 repetitions. More complex sequences can take up to 200. It can be weeks or months before a teaching routine becomes automatic.

"Habits appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold."

James Clear

During this automation phase, several things happen:

  1. We have to invest additional attention and effort to support the change, especially in contrast to our existing habit stack.

  2. Initially, we lack skill in new techniques, and so they can often feel clumsy and unnatural.

  3. A new approach for us also usually means a new experience for our students, with an associated lack of familiarity and fluency.

When combined, these things can lead to a feeling (and quite possibly a reality) of reduced performance. During this phase, routines can feel like a waste of effort. And we can be tempted to give up. (especially if we are a new teacher or find ourselves in a stressful situation)

However, this effort is not being wasted. It is merely being stored πŸ”‹

If you play the long game and stick with it, you will eventually reach a tipping point (automation) where the benefits will begin to outweigh the investment. From then on, your routine will pay back handsomely. You'll have crossed what James Clear calls the 'Valley of Potential', and you'll be unleashing all that stored effort.

But to get there, you'll need to ready yourself for a period of increased effort, discomfort, and reduced performance. You'll need to manage your own expectations.

Caveat β†’ Automating a rubbish routine is never going to deliver value for learning. It's also important to know when to give up. Just make sure you've given your routine a chance to shine before you bin it.

πŸŽ“ For more on the automation process, see Making health habitual: the psychology of β€˜habit-formation’, by Gardner et al.

So, the next time you find yourself trying to establish a new routine or habit, check your expectations and hold the lineβ€”the wins are there for the taking.


β€’ Routines can support learning but their benefits are only realised once things have been automated.

β€’ During the automation phase, routines often feel effortful, unnatural, and unfamiliar.

β€’ If we don't manage our expectation, we risk giving up prematurely.

Little Updates πŸ₯•

Stay hungry.

Peps πŸ‘Š

PS. The lovely Emma Mccrea suggested it might be better to stick with a theme for a few weeks, rather than flitting around between big ideas. Help me decide how to proceed:

Snacks would be better if the big ideas...

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