How to Troubleshoot a Habit when Habit Training isn't Working

How to Troubleshoot a Habit when Habit Training isn’t Working

In a previous post, I set out my plans for incorporating habit training into our home. The mission was simple: have my kids get dressed before breakfast, setting us up for a day with more opportunities, less rushing, and generally more fun. I also promised to post updates to give real-life insight into our endeavors!

To give away the ending, habit training has been a mixed bag of success, frustration, and the realization that, at less than two months in, our getting-dressed habit needs to be revamped. While I wish I could get this type of thing right the first time, and vigorously guard a new habit, I need to bring wisdom and humility to this, not my pride.

So with a new year unfolding before us, I took a step back to reflect on our less-than-perfect start to habit training, in an attempt to get us closer to those ‘smooth and easy days’ Charlotte Mason talks about.

Ensure you are heading in the right direction.

One of the best things to come out of our first attempt at habit training was confirmation that we are heading in the right direction. On the mornings we woke up, completed our habit (getting dressed), and then ate breakfast, our days seemed to teem with opportunity. We were able to start morning time at the breakfast table, which meant it happened much more consistently. Particularly on the mornings we needed to be out of the house, I found we were no longer abbreviating morning time, or, worse, cutting it out completely.

Having the kids dressed before breakfast and morning time, meant that when morning time finished, we got out of the door much more easily for a trip to the woods or the allotment. Previously, I had to send everyone away to get dressed after breakfast. Everyone would finish at different times, then I would have to pull them away from whatever game they were playing by the time the last person was ready to go out. I suspected that it would be far simpler to herd everyone outdoors from a common place, like the table or the sofa, and my experience confirmed my suspicions. Without the opportunity to get distracted, the transition out of the house goes much more smoothly.

All of this confirmed that we are working towards something worthwhile. Our goal isn’t to have a perfectly structured morning. The goal is to be the type of family who gets up and gets the important things done. That’s what getting dressed represents: being prepared to do the important things.

Assess what prevents your habit from happening consistently.

Despite the many benefits we enjoyed when the habit went well (i.e. the kids got dressed in a timely fashion with limited complaints), our experience was far from smooth. The original habit was simply to get dressed before breakfast. I assumed that this would be a pretty strong motivation for hungry little boys.

Turns out, not as much a motivation as I expected. While it was fairly straightforward to enforce the ‘no-breakfast-until-you-are-dressed’ rule, it meant that when there was pushback, there was often one child who ended up starting his breakfast much later than the other, throwing off our rhythm for the day.

Fortunately, I had picked up James Clear’s Atomic Habits (affiliate link), and was able to diagnose the problem. As he summarizes in his book, every habit has four parts: cue, craving, response, reward.

My habit hinged on the the last three components of habits: my kids are hungry (craving), they get dressed (response), they get to eat (reward). The trouble with this is that they were missing a cue.

Breakfast makes a good deadline. It consistently happens every day. But for various reasons, it’s pretty much the first consistent thing that happens every day. Our kids don’t wake up at exactly the same time every day. Sometimes we make time for snuggles in Mom and Dad’s bed, and other times we have to get up and get going. Unless I were to ring a bell at the appropriate time each day, our mornings are filled with variety up until breakfast. There is no good initial cue to let the kids know it’s time to put on their clothes. Hence the need to revamp our habit.

Adjusting a habit to suit your family.

Attempting to form a habit without a consistent cue resulted in frustration and a fair amount of chaos. Therefore, in the new year, we’ve made one major change:

  • We start morning time over breakfast, in our pajamas. This feels more natural to me: I have a hard time getting dressed as soon as I get up, even though I was trying in an effort to encourage the kids.
  • We get about two thirds of the way through, when breakfast is mostly eaten, and then take an intermission to get dressed.
  • I am able to herd the kids upstairs, assist with getting dressed as needed (they are still little!), and get myself dressed.
  • We regroup for what I imagine is the most fun part of morning time: French, a fun video (usually Jonathan Bird’s Blue World), and our read aloud.

Granted, we are only a week into our new habit, but so far this is a welcome adjustment. It already feels more sustainable. The kids range from extremely eager to get dressed and get to their story, to I’d-rather-goof-off-than-get-dressed, but actual push back is minimal. We still finish morning time in good time, and are ready to head outdoors or to a morning activity when we are finished.


My biggest takeaway from the last two months is the need to consider all parts of a habit before you attempt to establish it. In our case, it would look like this:

Cue: Finish listening to our folk song.

Craving: Want to continue morning time, watch fun videos, and spend time as a family.

Response: Go upstairs and get dressed.

Reward: Enjoy the rest of morning time, including fun videos and stories with Mom.

To help you organize your own thoughts about habit training, I have updated my habit training worksheet to include the cue/craving/response/reward structure. Download it for free from my resource section! And if you are thinking about habit training, whether for yourself, your kids, or both, I highly recommend Atomic Habits. (Click through the affiliate link to purchase on AbeBooks or Amazon.)

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