Want Better School Marks? Don’t Set Goals. Rather Create New Habits.

Written by Adrian Marnewick

Written by a real person, not AI.

New goals don’t deliver better school academic results. New lifestyles do.

At the beginning of every year most of us like to set new life goals. Psychologically, it makes sense to want to throw off your old self for the new, improved person you want to become, especially at the start of a new year.

However, if you’re anything like me, you’re always left with a niggly feeling that despite your ambitious new year goals and the in-the-moment resolve you have to accomplish them, you’ll be left disappointed just like every other year. You’ve set goals before. Sometimes selfish goals that focus exclusively on you, and sometimes sacrificial goals that focus on helping others (and these are surely noble). But after a few weeks, or at best 2 to 3 months, your exciting new goals are forgotten about, whether they were set with selfish or selfless intent. You’ve failed, again.

It’s an absolute cliché.

Countless philosophers, psychologists, writers, teachers and dare I say, ‘expert influencers’ (read “the TikTok”), have elaborated at great length the common theme we all feel about setting goals only to fail every, single, time.

So I’m not going to rehash what you can already read anywhere and everywhere about goals and goal setting.

Instead, I’d like to focus on habits and lifestyles. More specifically, how habits and lifestyles relate to your child at the start of a brand new school year, and why what you do next will either set your child up for failure or spectacular success.

“New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do. And a lifestyle is a process, not an outcome. For this reason, all of your energy should go into building better habits, not chasing better results.” ~ James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

Schools are opening this week for the 2024 school year. Irrespective of the results your child achieved in 2023’s school report, they are starting this new year with a clean slate. A completely blank report. Their marks start at 0% on day one and begin increasing from there onwards.

You want your child to achieve their level best this year, and now is the perfect time for them to begin working on it.

So you have two options:

  1. Help your child set academic goals for 2024; or
  2. Help your child slowly and consistently implement a new lifestyle with new habits that naturally lead to better long-term academic results, without even trying.

If you choose option 1 and set academic goals, they might look like this …

  • Improve from a C to a B in English.

This goal is good. Even better, you’ve written it down and stuck it on the wall to make it highly visible. But there is a difference between having goals and having a plan to reach those goals.

So, next you create a plan based on the goal, which looks like this …

  • Spend 30 minutes per day reading the dictionary and practicing spelling.

Great! You now have a goal and a plan.

However, you’ve tried this before, remember? And failed, every time.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” ~ Rita Mae Brown

At this point you realise that something has to permanently change if you want your child to make the best use of their remaining school years. And it finally sinks in that you need to stop fixating on goals and plans, and instead focus on your (and your child’s) HABITS – “a regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up”.

“Stop fixating on goals. Rather nurture good habits.”

Instead of forcing your child to study, what would your family life look like if your child’s natural, automatic tendency was to study? Instead of sitting for 4 hours in front of an Xbox or TV, what would your child’s physical and mental health look like if their natural desire was to balance screen time with physical exercise?

It sounds like an unreachable utopia, but it’s a lot more achievable than most parents realise.

At this point I should throw in the caveat that I’m a firm believer in setting realistic goals (known as SMART goals), but only when combined with a concrete plan to slowly and consistently create better habits. Otherwise you’re just setting yourself and your child up for failure again. Eventually, they stop trusting you, and you stop trusting your ability as a capable parent.

So it’s time to finally shake things up and try option two: Help your child slowly and consistently implement a new lifestyle with new habits that naturally lead to better long-term academic results, without even trying.


It’s up to you as a parent to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible for your child. 40 to 50 percent of our actions on any given day are done out of habit, often without even thinking. The key is to give your child an environment where the good habits gradually overtake the bad.

To illustrate a simple example, if you want to stop eating so many biscuits every day, change the environment. Move the biscuit tin to a place where it becomes difficult and inconvenient to reach. That’s all it takes.

Want to become healthier? Dig your walking or running shoes out from under the pile of other shoes, and give them a new home right next to your bed (despite the chagrin of your spouse who complains that you never put your shoes away) to make it 1000 times easier to put them on your feet daily. Change your environment. That’s all it takes.

So how can you apply this to your child’s schoolwork this year in order to see vastly improved academic results?

Change their environment.

Make it more difficult and inconvenient for them to do the things that keep them perpetually enslaved in a cycle of bad habits, and make it highly convenient and easy for them to do things that will improve their school results.

If you’ve been following my work for a while, you know I don’t write a post without mentioning WorksheetCloud – because it’s AMAZING and it works well. Start with a tool like WorksheetCloud that makes studying ridiculously simple. Then create an environment where it’s easy for your child to hop on to WorksheetCloud to smack out 15 to 25 minutes of revision every day after school without any distractions.

Distractions proving too strong for your child to resist?

Unplug the Xbox, roll up ALL the cables, put everything inside a box, put the box on the top shelf of a tall cupboard. When your child wants to play games, they’ll need to go to considerably more effort to turn the Xbox on then they currently do by simply pressing one single button. Once they’re done gaming, make them re-box everything and store the box in the cupboard again. Change their environment.

Think this won’t work?

If you think something so dramatic won’t have any affect on breaking your child’s bad habits, then you’ve either never tried something so dramatic OR you struggle with being a consistent parent.

For this to work, you need to be entirely consistent. You’re the adult, so adult. Insist that your child follows the rules of the new environment every single time. Using the Xbox as an example, if your child knows that you will always insist that they go through the entire rigmarole every single time, then their bad habit of easy gaming suddenly becomes something more tedious and they’ll find something easier with which to distract themselves.

So again, you want to provide “distractions” that build good habits while slowly eroding their existing poor habits.

Don’t overthink it. You don’t need a perfect plan. You don’t need to wait for the perfect day to begin building new good habits. You don’t need to wait for a sign. Just get started today. Choose one, simple thing to change in your child’s environment today. Even if it’s as simple as getting them to pack their school bag and put it by the front door the night before, in order to avoid the usual morning stress of trying to find books and stationery 20 minutes before school starts.

And most importantly, stay consistent. Don’t flinch. Or at least, don’t let them see you flinch. You can always go to the bathroom, close the door, and have a good cry in private about how difficult it is to be a good parent …

Remember, new goals don’t deliver better school academic results. New lifestyles do.


Further recommended reading:

Atomic Habits by James Clear

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers by Sean Covey

The Author - Adrian Marnewick

Adrian is the Product Director and Co-founder of Learning Lab Apps, the company that develops WorksheetCloud. He is an activist for technology in education, but also a firm believer in the effectiveness of good, old fashioned, hands-on teaching.

WorksheetCloud is the most exciting way to study for exams and tests!

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