The One Surprising Habit of Effective Leaders

October 20th, 2016

74466_161_d9-4_c_lgWe usually think about leadership as the art of doing big, important stuff: creating a vision, making decisions, inspiring people. You know, leading.

But here’s a funny thing: many effective leaders spend a lot of time doing the opposite. Specifically, they spend time picking up stuff on the floor. Cleaning up. Playing janitor.

Exhibit A: LeBron James, who spent an evening last week picking up the team’s laundry from the locker-room floor after a game.

Exhibit B: Exhibit B: Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, was famous for picking up trash. “Every night you’d see him coming down the street, walking close to the gutter, picking up every McDonald’s wrapper and cup along the way,” former McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner told author Alan Deutschman. “He’d come into the store with both hands full of cups and wrappers. I saw Ray spend one Saturday morning with a toothbrush cleaning out holes in the mop wringer. No one else really paid attention to the damned mop wringer, because everyone knew it was just a mop bucket. But Kroc saw all the crud building up in the holes, and he wanted to clean them so the wringer would work better.”

Exhibit C: John Wooden. Back in the mid-sixties, when UCLA’s men’s basketball team was in the midst of one of the most successful eras in sports history – ten titles in 12 years — Franklin Adler, the team’s student manager, saw something odd: Coach Wooden picking up trash in the locker room. “Here was a man who had already won three national championships,” Adler said, “a man who was already enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a player, a man who had created and was in the middle of a dynasty – bending down and picking up scraps from the locker room floor.”

Exhibit D: The New Zealand All-Blacks, the best rugby team on the planet, who have formalized this into a habit they call “Sweeping the Sheds.” Basically, the team leaders are in charge of keeping the locker room clean.

This is a striking pattern. These are terrific, accomplished leaders of highly successful groups, and they are spending their valuable time on what would seem to be the most trivial, tedious, and mundane tasks imaginable — using a toothbrush to clean crud from mop buckets. Why?

The answer, I think, is that we tend to think about leadership in the wrong way. We tend to focus on the big, showy moves, when what really matters is the small, humble moments when the leader sends a relational signal of connection. These moments are vital because they contain several signals:

  • I am not above you
  • This place matters — we have standards
  • You should do this kind of thing too
  • We are about things that are bigger than ourselves

It adds up to a leadership mindset that I would call a muscular humility – an approach that constantly seeks simple ways to help and support the group. The reason these signals are powerful is not just because they are moral or generous, but also because they send a larger signal that every group needs to be sent over and over: we are all in this together. Because the point of leadership is not to do great things, but rather to create an environment where the whole group can do great things together.

If you have any similar stories about leadership, feel free to share below. I’d love to hear them.

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Stop Warming Up, Start Learning Up

October 6th, 2016

You’ve seen it a thousand times. It happens before every game, at every level (and not just in sports, but also in music, theater, and dance). Before the game begins, the players loosen up. They get the juices flowing, they do a few moves, find their rhythm, and get comfortable. We call this process “warming up.” Warming up is widely accepted, and it’s completely fine.

The problem with warming up, however, is not what you do. It’s what you don’t do.

When you warm up in the traditional way, you forgo something important: the opportunity to get better. The evidence for this is the habits of top performers. Because they don’t merely warm up. They do something different. You could call it “learning up.”

Steph Curry is a good example. Here’s how he prepares for each game.

The whole thing is worth watching, because in a few minutes Curry highlights the key features of learning up, and in the process demolishes several myths about warming up.

Myth #1: The goal of a warmup is to get comfortable 

Reality: Curry’s goal isn’t to get comfortable — it’s the opposite. He takes on a series of difficult tasks designed to test him, to put him on the learning edge, making mistakes and fixing them. By being uncomfortable now, he prepares himself to be comfortable later.

Myth #2: Keep intensity light, save your energy for the game

Reality: Everything is high intensity, high focus, and high energy. He dribbles hundreds of times. He takes 75 jumpers, for starters, far more than he’ll take in a game.  The energy can be restored. What is not restorable is the opportunity to pre-create game intensity.

Myth 3: Warmups are loose affairs. You don’t have to design them.

Reality: Every moment of Curry’s 20-minute warmup is designed within an inch of its life to target the key parts of his game. There’s flexibility and fun — notice how he progressively alters the arc of certain shots, and takes an insanely long shot at the end — but only within a larger structure that purposely built to expand his skillset.

Myth #4: You should try to avoid making mistakes

Reality: Curry makes mistakes all the time. And it’s purposeful: he is constantly adding little extras to make it tougher — fakes, moves, changing the arc of the shot. He does this because he understands that the goal is not perfection; the goal is learning, and to do that, you need to make mistakes and pay attention to them.

Myth #5: The purpose of warming up is to prepare you for the game

Reality: Curry’s real purpose here isn’t to just prepare for the game, but rather to improve — to fix his weaknesses and build his strengths. Performance in the game is a side effect of getting a little better every single day. This is one reason why Curry, a small, skinny player who was lightly regarded during his first years as a pro, has been able to transcend his sport with a skillset that no one else possesses in today’s game. It’s not like he was great all along. He became great through his work habits, by getting a little bit better each day.


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How to Use Failure

September 27th, 2016

Seeing as I’ve been absent from this space for while now — and I’ll be writing more often now that the new book is mostly done — I thought it might be good to write about failure. Beginning with a question:

What happens when we fail really badly at something? 

I’m not talking about almost-success or near misses. I’m talking about spectacular screwups, missed-by-a-country-mile kind of failures, when we fall flat on our face.

Most of us have the same reaction. We wince. We close our eyes. We slowly look to see if anybody noticed us. Then we ignore it, or, better, pretend it didn’t happen. It’s basically a full-brain allergic response — minimize it, keep quiet, and move on — and it makes perfect psychological sense.

But there’s an opportunity in this moment that is sometimes overlooked. Because when failure is shared, something special happens.

Check out this clip of Ed Sheeran, superstar of global pop, playing a recording of his teenage self. Spoiler: he’s really bad (fast forward to the 50-second mark if you dare).  Sheeran can’t hit the notes. It sounds like yodeling, or someone falling down the stairs.

Or check out the remarkable CV of Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton. It’s like any other CV, except for one thing: Haushofer lists everything he failed at: the programs he failed to get into, the awards and funding he failed to receive. As he writes,

Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

The engineers at Etsy do the same every week in the form of a company-wide email openly confessing their biggest mistakes.

Each of these methods is effective because it taps into the same power. Making failure visible sets off a chain reaction with two benefits: 1) you create emotional connection and motivation; 2) you provide knowledge that helps others avoid the same mistakes. Failure isn’t something to be hidden, but a valuable resource to be exploited, a tool that helps a group become smarter and more connected.

Which leads to another question: what’s the best way to do this? Here are a few ideas:

  • Have leaders model vulnerability. When the most powerful people in a group are open about failure, they give permission for everyone else to do the same.
  • Set expectations early on. The first big failure is the opportunity to establish the norm for group behavior around failures. If the first failure is shared, the others become easier to share.
  • Build group habits of failure-sharing. A lot of highly successful groups have regular circle-ups where they shine light on their screwups, hold each other accountable, and make plans for improvement. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a necessity when it comes to building a group brain.

I’d be curious if you had any other ideas for doing this; if you do, please feel free to share them below.

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Some news

September 6th, 2016

Unknown-2After a long hiatus spent researching my new book, I’m back, and I plan to be posting here regularly in coming weeks. Thanks for your patience. The new book will be called The Culture Code: The Hidden Language of Successful Groups, and it will be published next fall (2017) by Random House.

It’s based on a simple idea: beneath the surface, all high-performing groups are fundamentally the same place, following the same rules. I spent the last three years visiting eight of the world’s most highly successful groups, including Pixar, Navy SEALs Team Six, the San Antonio Spurs, IDEO, a gang of jewel thieves, and others.  I found that they share a behavioral fingerprint, relentlessly generating a pattern of messages that create belonging, trust, and purpose. This book is about understanding how those messages work — and understanding how to use them to build your group’s culture.

Researching this book, as you might guess, has been addictively fascinating. I’m eager to share some material with you in the coming months, and, more important, I’m eager to hear your ideas. Looking forward to continuing the conversation, and thanks for reading.

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The Power of High-Leverage Practice

November 24th, 2014

Here is Odell Beckham Jr. last night, making what might be the greatest catch in NFL history.

That video is beautiful, but there’s something that’s even more beautiful:  Beckham Jr. before games, practicing exactly this type of catch.

This reveals the deeper truth behind his great catch: it was no accident. Watch how Beckham  keeps one hand at his side, as if  pinned by a defender; how he controls the nose of the ball with his index finger; how his eyes follow the ball into his palm. We normally think of this kind of catch as a feat of athleticism. This shows that it’s really a feat of preparation.

This is a very particular kind of preparation, systematically pre-creating the most difficult situations. You might call it High-Leverage Practice, because it shows how focusing relentlessly on pre-creating pressure conditions can set a performer apart from their peers.

It reminds me of a story about Steve Kerr, the former NBA guard who’s now coach of the Golden State Warriors. Early in his career, Kerr was having trouble coming in off the bench and performing his specialty, which was three-point shots. He tried to fix the problem by focusing on technique, shooting thousands of three-pointers in practice. It didn’t work.

Then one of his coaches, Chip Engelland, had an insight. The problem wasn’t the shooting. The problem was the pressure caused by Kerr’s coming into the game cold, without warming up. So Engelland and Kerr decided to try an experiment.

Here’s how it worked: Engelland and Kerr would sit on the bench together, chatting casually. Then, all of a sudden, without any warning, Engelland would yell NOW!, and Kerr would have to go shoot a single three-pointer, then return to the bench. Then a few more minutes would go by, with more casual chatting, then Engelland would suddenly yell “NOW!” an the process would repeat. For half and hour, they would do this, shooting only eight or ten times. And it worked. Kerr’s game performance vastly improved. Not because he was a better shooter, but because he and his coach had, like Beckham Jr., designed a smarter training space.

High-leverage practice shares a few common characteristics:

  • 1) It’s focused. You aren’t pre-creating the entire game, but only targeted situations.
  • 2) It’s often untraditional. It doesn’t tend to fall into the list of conventional practice techniques, and as such, is easy to marginalize or overlook.
  • 3) It’s habitual. High-leverage skills aren’t built in a few specialized sessions; they are built over time, through repetition and routine.

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A Quick Cure for Ineffective Practice

October 20th, 2014

Practice sessions, like everything else, occur along a broad spectrum of effectiveness. At one end you have the perfect session where everything clicks, everyone is engaged and working productively.

Way, way over on the opposite end of the spectrum you have the Really Bad Practice. The sessions where no one is engaged, where no learning happens, and where you begin to suspect everyone would have been better off skipping the entire thing and going to a movie instead.

When we try to understand the causes of bad practice, we instinctively tend to focus on the learner’s state of mind and their emotions. For whatever reason, they just didn’t show up today, didn’t give effort, didn’t get engaged.

But is that true? Or is there another way to think about this problem?

The following two videos give us an insight by performing a simple and brilliant experiment: they ask adults to play in spaces that replicate the exact dimensions a kid would experience: supersize hockey rinks and soccer fields. The result is a Petri dish of contagiously bad practice: a dysfunctional circus of non-engagement, frustration, flailing, and non-productive effort.

This is, of course, a powerful argument for kid-size spaces, but the deeper message for us is to give insight into the causes of bad practice. Because it’s not about the learners; it’s really about the space.

All the behaviors we witness here: the exhausted flailing, the poor decision-making, the drifting attention spans, the low-boiling frustration, are not a function of their character (after all, these participants in the videos are coaches who love the game). All the bad stuff is a function of the fact that the space is too big.

In other words, engagement is not an emotion; it’s a design feature. When it doesn’t occur, the leader’s first move should not be to blame the learners, but to check the space to see if it can be improved.

The main principle of effective practice design is to keep the degree of difficulty in the sweet spot: neither too hard nor too easy, so that learners are constantly on the edge of their ability.

The other principle? Teachers and learners should trade places a lot more often.

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Stop Doing Drills; Start Using Challenges

October 6th, 2014

no-drillingOne mysterious day many years ago — maybe around the Industrial Revolution — coaches and teachers started using a particular word to describe repetitive learning activities. It was a vivid, mechanical word: implying pressure, precision, progress. And it caught on in a big way.

The word is “drill.”

“Drill” has become the single most common word we use to describe practice in sports, music, and academics. And that’s a problem.

The problem is not that “drill” is a bad word in itself. The problem is that it often sends the wrong message to the learner.

The word “drill” is a signal that:

  • There is one correct way to do something, and only one way
  • This group values machine-like repetition above all else

Now, there are moments when that kind of signal is perfectly appropriate. But the ethos of “drilling” has been applied to a far wider range of activities, like soccer players learning to control the ball, or math students solving algebraic equations, or musicians working on improvisational skills — situations where you are seeking to create creativity, energy, and innovation.

So what word is better?

I think the answer is “challenge.”

I know, it seems like a tiny change. And yet, there are differences between the two terms that are worth appreciating.

The word “challenge” is a signal that:

  • This is social, fun, and gamelike. It’s connective. (After all, it’s not called the “Ice-Bucket Drill,”is it?)
  • Difficulty is expected; mindfulness is required; innovation is embraced
  • This group values challenging obstacles, competing, and creating

One of my favorite examples is the Bonner Challenge, invented by Matt Bonner, reserve forward for the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. A few years ago he was messing around on the court and came up with a pre-practice routine he loved. He started challenging others to match him, and it caught on.

It works like this: you take your first ten shots of the day from ten pre-determined spots on the floor (layups, free throw, college three-point line, pro three-point-line, etc). Make all ten with zero misses, and you’ve won the Bonner Challenge. (If you take any other shots, you’re ruled “Bonner Ineligible.”) The team keeps track of the latest winner, and who’s won the most over the year, and they get a championship belt. It’s competitive, fun, and contributes to the team’s culture of togetherness (even the coaches compete).


Now, what Bonner invented, of course, is basically a drill. You could easily construct an alternate scenario where a coach orders the team to do the exact same ten-shot drill — but would it have the same engagement, impact, contagiousness, and mystique? Not even close. It succeeds because it’s not called a drill. It’s a challenge.

Like many successful organizations, the Spurs understand and embrace the power of words. Another example: when a Spurs player comes into practice early for individual work, they call the extra sessions “Vitamins.” Every other team in the league calls the sessions “early work,” or “extra work,” which carries negative connotations. But not the Spurs. Because they view those sessions as positive, essential opportunities that make players better. Vitamins.

The larger lesson here is that words matter far more than we think. Each element of the learning process exists within the fabric of the group’s culture and values. The words we use create the path to the behaviors we get. So take the time to pick them carefully, one by one.

(Which, come to think of it, is sort of like doing the Bonner Challenge.)

I’d love to hear any other good terms you’ve heard for practice or drills or anything. Which ones are your most favorite? Your least?

PS – here’s another great example of a challenge, courtesy of reader Stuart Crampton: Bayern Munich playing Bucket Ball

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A Mental Trick from the World’s Best Team

September 25th, 2014

keep-calm-and-chillax-72By most measures, the New Zealand All-Blacks are the toughest, smartest, and most successful sports team on the planet. The rugby squad has won 86 percent their games during the modern era against some of the most ferocious competition in the world. Best of all, they begin each match with a crazy, terrifyingly cool haka dance (below).

So it won’t surprise you to learn that the All-Blacks train incredibly hard, or that they have a robust team culture, or that they are tactically brilliant. But it might surprise you to learn that they spend a lot of time and energy working on an area which most of us totally ignore: emotional skills.

Specifically, their ability to regulate mood, to stay positive and resilient, to handle unfair ups and downs, to remain even-keeled, and to deal with unpredictable misfortune without losing your grip.  Basically, their competitive temperament.

It’s funny, we don’t normally think of temperament as a skill. We think of it as a fixed product of someone’s character. We instinctively assume that temperaments are either weak (tend to choke under pressure) or strong (tend to come through). The All-Blacks, however, treat temperament and emotion as muscles to be trained with specific workouts.

Quick background: a few years ago, the team was going through a period of uncharacteristic struggle. Some players were having trouble controlling their emotions in matches. It was the typical stuff we all experience from time to time: they were trying too hard, being overly aggressive, and experiencing the tunnel-vision syndrome Navy pilots dryly refer to as OBE: Overcome By Events.

So, with the help of a former Rhodes Scholar named Ceri Evans, they devised a tool to fix that, built on a simple two-part frame that describes the mental state you want to avoid, and the one you want to be in. They call it Red Head/Blue Head.

Red Head is the negative state, when you are heated, overwhelmed, and tense (H.O.T., in the parlance). Your emotional engine is smoking, your perceptions are slow, the game feels too fast, and your decision making is rushed.

Blue Head, on the other hand, is the precise opposite: the cool, controlled, pattern-seeing state, when you retain your awareness and your decision-making power, when you stay flexible and deliver top performance.

The key is doing three things:

  • 1) seek to stay in Blue Head as your default setting
  • 2) sense cues when you are entering Red-Head mode
  • 3) use a physical or mental trigger to get yourself back into Blue Head.

On the All-Blacks, each player is encouraged to devise personal triggers to make the transition. One player stamps his feet into the grass, to ground himself. Another uses mental imagery, picturing himself from the highest seat in the stadium, to help put the moment in perspective. Whatever  tool you use doesn’t matter — what matters is realizing you’re in the wrong emotional zone, and finding ways to cool yourself off and get back in a high-performing head space.

I think this is an idea that applies to a lot more than just sports. The notion that you can build yourself an emotional thermostat that senses when it’s overheating, and cools itself down when needed, is powerfully useful.

What I like best is how it flips the normal dynamic about emotions — where everyone is left to deal with it on their own — and turns it into a platform for group conversation. Players and coaches can use this language to tell a player that he’s glowing red, or to appreciate a player who stays blue under pressure.  It forms a language of performance that, like all shared languages, connects people and lifts them up.

(Plus, that haka!)

PS: if you want to read more about the All-Blacks, check out Legacy: What the All-Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, by James Kerr

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The Best Locker-Room Speech Ever, and Why it Works

September 15th, 2014

People talk all the time about what makes up a great teacher or coach. The vast majority of the conversation focuses on the daily business of the craft: methods, information, and strategies. And this makes perfect sense.

But every once in a while, we get a glimpse of what coaching and teaching really are. Last month, at the Little League World Series, we got one of those glimpses, courtesy of Dave Belisle, coach of the Rhode Island Americans, in the moments after his team suffered a heartbreaking loss that eliminated them from the tournament.

(If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend it.)

Goosebumps, right?

This speech strikes such a chord because it is a perfect case study of relationship-based coaching. It’s an approach where the coach puts his effort and focus on building relationships — creating identity, trust, and a sense of belonging.

A conventional coach focuses first on skills. A relationship-based coach, on the other hand, focuses first on creating a sense of belonging. A conventional coach asks: what can I do to help them win? A relationship-based coach asks: what can I do to help us nurture connections and create a culture? A conventional coach views his team through the lens of performance. A relationship-based coach views his team through the lens of family — which, not coincidentally, tends to make the teaching all the more effective. People work hard for a team. They work even harder for a team that truly feels like family.

Let’s look more closely at Belisle’s speech, which is like a textbook for relationship-based coaching.

First, he connects:

Everybody, heads up high, heads up high. Let’s talk for a moment here. Look, I’ve gotta see your eyes, guys.”

It would be so easy to overlook this given the emotion of this moment, but it’s massively important. I gotta see your eyes, guys. Be here, right now, together.

Then, he establishes the core message:

There’s no disappointment in your effort — in the whole tournament, the whole season…We came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!

Notice how he focuses on things the team can control — the effort — and uses it to affirm the strength of the team identity. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!

He keeps building, focusing ruthlessly on their accomplishment and linking it to their identity. The message: they succeeded not just because they played well — they succeeded because of who they are.

You had the whole place jumping, right? You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. OK? You want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way.

He doesn’t BS them — this is the last game — but he frames their disappointment around their larger, far more meaningful connection:

It’s OK to cry, because we’re not going to play baseball together anymore. But we’re going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be.”

Then explains what’s about to happen — which, of course, is about more relationships, connecting to those who love and support them:

So, we need to go see our parents, because they’re so proud of you. One more thing. I want a big hug. I want everyone to come in here for one big hug. One big hug, then we’re going to go celebrate. Then we’re going to go back home to a big parade.

This is not conventional coaching. This is a clinic on relationship-building. Fully 90 percent of what he says is about team identity and family. And he proves his words through his actions and the steadiness of his demeanor, especially those long, intense pauses that drive the words home to each kid, one at a time.

You’d call these “soft skills” but as this shows, they are anything but “soft” in their application. They’re a product of a relationship-based approach that has four core principles:

  • 1) Seek to create belonging by establishing a clear, vivid identity.
  • 2) Be vulnerable. Notice how the coach talks openly about emotions, especially his own. This creates safety and trust.
  • 3) Teach the whole kid. Connect in ways beyond the field or classroom.
  • 4) Tell the truth. The strength of the relationship is in its honesty and trust.

So simple, and so powerful. If anybody has any other examples of relationship-based coaching/teaching, or ideas to share, I’d love to hear them.

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Five Simple Back-to-School Study Hacks for Kids

September 5th, 2014

kid_brainDear Kids,

Welcome to the start of another school year.  (I know, it’s a huge bummer that summer is over. If it helps, we adults feel exactly the same way. Have a cherry popsicle — you’ll feel better.)

Over the next nine months, you’re going to be using your brain to learn stuff. So it would be a good idea to know how your brain really works.

(And to be clear, the goal of all this is NOT so that you can spend more time at your desk. It’s so that you can get your homework finished quickly and then go do something truly important, like go ride your bike around the neighborhood, or catch a bunch of lightning bugs in a jar, while being careful to screw the jar lid on tightly to keep your bedroom from being filled with tons of lightning bugs in the middle of the night, which is freaky and scary and also cool. See? You’re only in the third paragraph and you’ve already learned something!)

Anyway, the thing about your brain is that it’s a little bit like that jar of lightning bugs. It was built by evolution, so it has all these twitchy, surprising features that helped your ancestors not get stepped on by mastodons and avoid falling into quicksand or getting lost in the woods. It was built for survival, not algebra.

So here are five quick hacks for your brain that will help you study better. They’re drawn from a variety of scientific sources, including a terrifically useful and insightful new book called How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens, by Benedict Carey (which is out next week, which inspired me to write this, and which your parents should definitely buy).

Hack #1: Space out your study time. 

Let’s say that have a Spanish test on Friday, for which you need to spend about an hour preparing. Should you:

A) study Thursday night for one hour; or

B) study 20 minutes a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday?

The answer is: B). And it’s not even close. In fact, studies show you could probably get away with studying only about 10 or 15 minutes a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, because spacing out your study time is nearly twice as effective as cramming. It also helps you retain it a lot longer — which comes in handy for that Spanish test next month, and the one after that.

The reasons for this have to do with your brain’s tendency to get way less interested in stuff that gets repeated a lot over a short amount of time (i.e., cramming) and to get way more interested in stuff that it faintly remembers and can connect in different contexts. So, study the same way you snack: frequently, in small portions.

Hack #2: Switch up your study locations. We’re often told that we should stay in one place to learn, but that’s not true. Your brain likes to use settings like a Hollywood director; it uses them in the movies that make up your memory. So if you study and test yourself lots of places, play different kinds of music, wear different clothes, even chew different-flavored gum, your memory will improve.

Hack #3: Mix it up. School is orderly, so we instinctively think our studying schedule should also be orderly — you know, study math for an hour, then English for an hour. This is called “blocked practice,” and it makes perfect sense, except for one small fact: your brain doesn’t like blocked practice. What your brain likes instead is “interleaved practice,” where you study something for 10 minutes, then switch to something else, then come back.

The reasons for this are complicated, but they’re based on the fact that your brain works better when it’s being surprised. When you mix it up, you’re forcing your brain to work harder, and be more efficient.

(This also works in sports and music, by the way. If you want to get better at volleyball serves, mix up the type of serve you practice. And if you want to get better at playing classical music and rock, you should switch between the two all the time. Which could sound kind of awesome.)

Hack #4: Get outside. Your brain was built in the outdoors, so you need to let it get back there regularly. Nobody knows why being outside and walking around helps you get smarter, but it does. Check out this study of third-graders that shows how a 20-minute walk can light up the areas of the brain that filter out distraction and guide focused attention (talk about lightning bugs!)


Hack #5: Throw away your highlighters– instead, make a habit of testing yourself. We all know that school involves some memorization. The usual technique is to read a chapter over and over, highlight important passages, and maybe write notecards — you know the drill. Besides, it’s kind of fun to highlight (and yes, that yellow ink does smell fantastic).

But it turns out that those techniques are not nearly as effective as testing yourself. Here’s how: read a passage once, close the book, and then try to write the main points on a blank piece of paper. Then check yourself and see how many you got right.

In other words, don’t lean back in your chair. Instead, lean forward, and generate ideas. Shake the jar, and make the lightning bugs glow. Make your brain work the way it was designed to work — by reaching, struggling, and reaching again.

Best wishes,


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