Uncover Hidden Time – Repurpose Your Unconscious Habits

Unconscious Habits

When I was an Assistant Principal, I had an unconscious habit of always putting confiscated items in my desk drawer alongside typical desk drawer office supplies such as pens, pencils, rubber bands, and paper clips. It was not uncommon to open my desk drawer and see cute colored sticky notes right next to a pocket knife or skull-shaped toy waiting for a parent to pick up. 

One day a student thought it would be really funny to bring his shock pen to school. If you’ve never heard of a shock pen, it looks like a normal writing pen, but when you push down the top with your thumb to try to get the pen to come out – when you try to click the pen – it gives you a shock! My student brought this pen to school as a joke to trick classmates and teachers. He was helpfully handing it out throughout the day to peers and teachers when he noticed they needed a writing utensil. So kind! That’s what everyone thought until they went to click the pen and got a shock! Eventually, the pen was confiscated and ended up where I habitually put confiscated items – in my desk drawer.

Later that week a father came by my office to meet and discuss next steps for his child. It was a tense conversation as the Dad’s child had been experiencing struggles in school for some time and we were recommending further testing to see what might be causing the struggles so we could better support his child. The father was apprehensive and I was taking my time to carefully explain everything to make sure he understood and felt comfortable before we proceeded. When it came time for him to sign the consent paperwork, I reached into my desk drawer as I was still explaining a few things and grabbed the first pen I felt without looking. As I finished my explanation, the dad tried to click the pen several times and shook his head in dismay as he did so. “I think your pen is broken,” he said as he handed it back to me. Then, instinctively, I tried the pen. As a shock ran through my thumb and up my arm I was horrified to realize what I had just done.

“Oh my goodness! This is the shock pen!” I exclaimed. Then I explained to the father that this was a pen I had confiscated from a student earlier in the week! 

Lucky for me, this shocking incident ended in laughter, lightened the mood, and actually ended up improving my relationship with this dad as we had a shared experience and laughed together. However, this could have ended up in disaster!

Why did I grab that shock pen? Because without thinking, I put it in my desk and without thinking, I grabbed a pen out of my drawer. This is an outrageous example, but we all have many unconscious habits – those things we do out of habit every day without even thinking. We wake up and check twitter or facebook, we have a cup of coffee, we check our email at a certain time, we put our mail in a certain place.

It’s time to take stock. What unconscious habits are positive or neutral and what unconscious habits do you need to break? What do you do on a daily basis without thinking that adds value and what habits do you have that that aren’t contributing to your goals? Think through your day – maybe even write down your typical practices – and be honest with yourself. Are these the practices of the educator you want to be? Changing tiny habits can make a BIG difference when you add those moments up each and every day or each and every class period.

Is sitting at your desk and eating helping you to contribute to a positive school culture? Or should you break that habit and go into the lunchroom or invite a teammate to eat together?

Is teaching every lesson whole group your common practice? Do you need to break the habit and go out of your way to pull small groups based on student needs?

As long as you let your unconscious habits rule your life, you are giving up control of becoming who you really want to be! You may unconsciously SHOCK someone instead of helpfully hand them a pen!

Psychologist Carl Jung says,

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Take control of your fate and choose to break those habits that are detrimental to helping you become the kind of educator you want to be!


Take time to write down your habits and routines from the time you arrive at school to the time you leave. Track your day and look for areas that may be detrimental to reaching your goals. You don’t need anything special to do this, but I created this Unconscious Habit Tracker if you’re interested in detailing exactly what you do and how much time you spend on it.

To use the Unconscious Habit Tracker, write down everything you do throughout the day, all of your routine practices, and the time you spend on each practice. For example, “Check email – 30 min.” Be honest! When you are done, go back through and think about each habit as it relates to your goals as an educator. Does that practice help you to make the kind of impact you want to make? Does it help you to leave the legacy you want to leave? Go through each Habit and/or Routine Practice and mark it as positive with a + if it helps you achieve your goal, neutral with a =  if it doesn’t add to or take away, it is just neutral, or – if it is an unconscious habit you want to work to break in order to better live out your mission.

You may be thinking, “What difference does my 10-minute Facebook check really make?” But think of how much of a difference 10 minutes… or even 5 minutes makes to your class time! 5 minutes every day is 25 minutes in one school week. Take captive those unconscious habits and choose to repurpose your time toward meeting your goals!

A few months ago, I noticed that each morning when my alarm went off telling me it was time for my run, I would get up (good job self! You didn’t hit snooze), go to the bathroom (that’s a good choice before a run) and then check my email and social media accounts. I don’t know about you, but for me, some days this can be a quick check that takes less than a minute, but it can also suck me in for 30 minutes easily if I received an angry email from a parent, an interesting video pulls me in on Facebook, or I click a link for a blog post on twitter and start reading and reading and reading… 

I realized that I HAD to change this habit if I was going to consistently get my run in and get myself to school on time. Now, I set my phone down – face down – while I am getting ready for my run so that I am not tempted to sit and “just quickly” (that is what I tell myself) flip through my email and social media. Eliminating this negative habit that I was unconsciously doing every morning has saved me (embarrassingly) 10-20 minutes A DAY. That is 50-100 minutes a week I just added to my life!!! That is CRAZY! 

Think of how you might repurpose your time if you daily spend time:

  • Checking Facebook at the beginning of planning.
  • Chatting with teammates for the majority of planning time one day per week.
  • Checking and responding to email at insufficient times.
  • Collecting student work (can’t students do that for you?)
  • Or another habit you may realize you do every day in class with students that might need tweaking.

You could repurpose that time with positive habits such as:

  • Write a positive note home for a student at the beginning of planning each day.
  • Leave a positive post-it for a colleague to find when you arrive for the day.
  • Spend 5 minutes thinking of how to tweak a lesson to add a student-centered activity.
  • Spend 2 minutes or less writing down a couple of quick reflections in a journal about how your lesson went and how you could tweak it to be even better before you leave for the day.
  • Post a picture of your class to social media and share what they’re doing each day during 3rd period or during math rotations, or before your switch class leaves… find a connection or cue to help you establish and remember your NEW habit that you want to replace your old unconscious habit.

Take time to reflect on how your year is going so far and take stock. What kind of educator did you set out to be this year? What habits did you hope to establish for your students, your team, your parents? What unconscious habits can you capture and repurpose toward meeting your goals this year? Uncover the hidden time in your day! Take stock by honestly detailing how you spend every minute and find those habits that you can capture and repurpose!

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