Back to School Tips, Part 3 – Create successful study habits & routines

Welcome back!

Concept of 30 Days TrialSo far in this 3-part back-to-school series, we’ve discussed how getting motivated & getting organized can help students get off to a good start this fall.  In the third and final article in the series, we’ll be focusing on the third key:  Creating successful study habits & routines.

Why are habits & routines so important?

Habits & routines are extremely important to students’ success, because earning good grades is a marathon, not a sprint – it requires sustained effort over a long period of time.  So, the day-to-day routines that teens follow throughout the semester will have a much bigger impact on their overall GPA and test scores than the occasional, herculean effort they put in during a few “all-nighters.”

If students have poor study habits, or no habits at all, doing well in school can be extremely difficult.  Every time they try to do homework or study, they have to go through a conscious struggle of willpower to “force” themselves to get focused.  It’s also easy for them to lose track of time and “forget” that they have work to do until late in the evening, at which point it’s difficult or impossible for them to stay focused and work efficiently.

Habits are extremely powerful.  In fact, studies suggest that the majority of our daily actions – somewhere between 50% and 95% – are habitual, and occur with little, if any, conscious thought about what we’re doing (Wood et al., 2002; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999).  Since most of our behavior is running on automatic pilot, it’s important to ensure that our habits are supporting us in reaching our goals, instead of working against us!

What are the benefits?

When students have good study habits & routines in place, it can make their lives much easier and less stressful.  It takes a lot of mental energy to have an internal debate every night about how much studying to do, when to start, where to work, and how much work they can save for homeroom in the morning!  Students who have good study habits & routines in place can avoid all of this inner conflict.

Because they require less mental energy, habits are also much more reliable than willpower.  When teens are tired or stressed (think: coming home at 7:30 pm after a long day of school and 2 hours of after-school activities), their ability to make wise decisions about how to spend their time (e.g. writing your English paper instead of watching YouTube videos) is going to be severely limited.

However, if they already have habits in place that they’re accustomed to following every day – for example, sitting down at the kitchen table to start homework immediately after dinner – they’re much more likely to automatically repeat that same behavior even when their motivation & energy levels are low.

Another benefit of routines is that they can be great mental “shortcuts” that enable students to get into a resourceful state of mind quickly and automatically.  In the same way that star athletes often perform a pre-game ritual to get them into the right state of mind to compete effectively, creating a pre-homework ritual can enable students to access the focused, curious state of mind they need to complete their work efficiently & effectively.

Creating effective habits & routines

Given all of the benefits of creating effective study habits, you may be wondering how you can help your teen to develop their own habits & routines!

Habits and routines are very personal things, and what works beautifully for one student may be completely ineffective for another.  (So, even if following a certain after-school routine works superbly for your 17 year old, there’s no guarantee that the same strategies will work for your 15 year old!)

That’s why, rather than prescribing specific habits for all of my students to follow, I prefer to have an open discussion with them about the different options for how they could approach their work, and collaborate with them to create habits & routines that fit their personality, preferences, and learning styles.

Here are a few of the questions I like to consider with my students when we are working on developing their study habits & routines:

  • Cheerful young woman using computerKnowing what to do:  How will you keep track of the work that has been assigned?  How will you confirm that this information is complete & accurate?
  • Timeline: How soon after getting home will you start your homework?   What, if anything, will you do beforehand?  (e.g. change clothes, get a snack)
  • Location: Where will you do your homework?  Will you have just one study location, or a few different options?
  • Order of assignments:  How will you decide what to do first, second, and last?
  • Time management: How much time will you plan to spend on your homework?  How will you keep track of time while you work? What will you do if the work is taking longer than you expected?
  • Study breaks: Will you take breaks while you study?  If so, how often, and for how long?  What will you do during these breaks to ensure that you come back feeling refreshed & ready to get back to work?
  • Managing distractions: What do you do with your phone while you study?  Your computer?  What will you do to regain focus if you start to get distracted?
  • Finishing: How will you keep track of the assignments that you’ve completed?   What will you do with them once they’re finished, to make sure you remember to turn them in?
  • Study methods:  What is your process of studying for a test?  What study methods are most effective for you?  How much studying will you do on a daily basis vs. before the test?
  • Long-term projects:  When you have a paper or project to do, how will you keep track of the deadlines?  When will you begin working on it?  What will your first steps be?  How soon before the deadline will you plan to finish it?

Because habits and routines are so personal, it’s easy for teens to feel protective of them, and defend them against any perceived attack.  So, when discussing your teen’s study habits, do your best to avoid criticizing or questioning their approaches.   Instead, try approaching the topic from a perspective of curiosity, asking open-ended questions about how they like to tackle their schoolwork and what approaches they find are most effective for them.

If you & your teen are interested in getting some additional support from an academic coach who can help identify & establish study habits & routines that work for them, I would be happy to talk with you about your teen’s situation and see if working together would be a good fit for their needs. Just click on the link below to reserve a time for your complimentary 30-minute consultation.

I hope this information is helpful!  Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts – I’d love to hear from you!


Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462–479.
Wood, W., Quinn, J.M., & Kashy, D. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1281–1297.


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About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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