Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

How often have you read a book that you can apply the principles immediately, even while reading the book? I am talking about Inception style “dream within a dream.” That is exactly what happened to me while I read make it stick. The book is about how we learn and retain information effectively and I found myself applying the techniques to solidify the learning strategies in the book. When this happens, you know you found a real gem. You haven’t even put the book down and you are already finding ways to apply it.

One of the biggest takeaways was how important retrieval practice is for durable learning. Retrieval practice means self-quizzing on material you have previously learned. Rather than rereading a textbook or notes, you ask yourself questions which require you to retrieve the information from memory. This habit requires more effort but leads to deeper learning. The illustration given in the book is that learning anything new is like adding beads to a string for a necklace. You can add many beads to the string but unless you tie a knot at the end, the beads will slip off. The beads are compared to all the new things you learn. Retrieval practice is compared to tying the knot on the end of the string. The more you recall learned information, the better your knot and the more snug your beads will remain.

A real world application of retrieval practice is reflection. Since reading this book I have been trying to apply this by reflecting on my day at work. I think about the conversations I had, about the meetings I was a part of, the deliverables my team sent out, presentations I gave, and communication I had with my clients. I ask myself questions like:

  • What went right?
  • What went wrong?
  • What might I do differently next time?

I have a journal which I used to write down my thoughts. This practice helps me recall what works and what doesn’t so that I will be better prepared next time.

Another takeaway from the book was the authors perspective on failure. In the west we relate error to failure and achievement to ability. This is a fixed mindset (for more on this read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset). A fixed mindset means you see yourself as having a fixed intelligence that cannot really be changed. With this mindset if you fail or make an error it means you are not intelligent. The opposite of this mindset is the growth mindset. With the growth mindset you do not see your intelligence as fixed. Failure does not mean you are unintelligent, it just means you have work to do. We should see failure as a badge of effort. In order to learn new things we must focus on what is difficult not what is easy but this means we may fail. Mistakes can be good teachers as long as we are open to the feedback. We should look at mistakes and problems as good information not failure.

The two different mindsets also lead to different goals. When you have a fixed mindset you tend to set performance goals which will help validate your ability. This can cause you to shy away from challenges because you may worry you won’t succeed which will prove you aren’t as smart as you thought. On the other hand, a growth mindset tends to lead you to learning goals. With learning goals you are attempting to learn more and increase your skill. You pick challenges and see setbacks as useful information on where you should focus more effort to get better. I have been trying to apply this at work in the way I perceive difficult projects or tasks. When I get assigned a difficult project with many challenging aspects, rather than seeing it as a problem and complain, I want to train myself to see it as a learning opportunity. The challenges will help me become a better engineer as long as I learn from them.

The principles in this book have helped me understand how to obtain deeper learning through retrieval practice. A real world application of this is reflection. I reflect on my day, the challenges I faced, what I can learn from them, and how I can be better. I also learned that it is far more satisfying to have a growth mindset coupled with setting learning goals. With this mindset my intelligence is not fixed, I have room to reach my potential, and I can see failure and setbacks as useful information rather than a lid.

5 Takeaways from The Compound Effect

I just finished reading this fantastic little book called The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. If you are a personal development junky, I highly recommend it. Hardy makes the case that we need to get back to good old fashioned hard work and consistency in order to be successful. We like to believe in fairy tales and applying a few life hacks to change our lives, however, the compound effect is about small positive habits and choices made over a long period of time which create big results. A pastor said it this way “It’s often the small things that no one sees that result in the big things that everyone wants.”

 Lust vs love

If you want success, help others get it. Anthony Robins opens with this in his message at the beginning of the book and Darren Hardy closes with it at the end. Many personal development and leadership books present this idea but at the end of the day we are all pretty selfish. As humans we are each trying to get ahead often at the cost of pushing others down. It is easy to view your field and work as a zero sum game. Someone else’s success takes away from your success. It is a battle between lust versus love. Lust is selfish and all about what I can get whereas love is about what I can give. If you can overcome this tendency toward lust and instead serve others, put others first, and help others succeed, you will stand out. This is also far more fulfilling in the long run. As Hardy explains, the person who goes against the norm is unusual and is the one who can achieve extraordinary results.

Choices

One of the questions Hardy raises is whether we are choosing our behavior or being a passive receiver in life. If I am honest more often I am a passive receiver. I fail to plan, to adapt, and often let life happen to me. It is essential to remember that we are each 100% responsible for our lives. Don’t point your finger to the world for the source of your problems but first look at yourself.

On a more positive note, one of the habits and choices I continually make is to be a reader. Over the past few years I have established the habit of reading in the morning before work. Sometimes I get discouraged by looking around and seeing colleagues or friends who appear just as successful but do not read. Thoughts go through my head of getting extra sleep or getting a few more hours at work for overtime instead of reading. This book helped remind me that the compound effect is at work in my habit of reading. It may not make a difference today, tomorrow, or this year, but over time I will gain wisdom and insight that cannot be manufactured.

Habits

One idea I have recently seen is linked with habits is integrity. High integrity is when your actions align with your values. What you do trumps what you say in every situation. When your habits and actions conflict with your values you will be unhappy, frustrated, and it will ultimately lead to self-delusion. I can tell my wife I love her but unless I plan a date my actions do not communicate this truth.

Another point about habits is awareness of what we think about and where our time is going. Our lives move in the direction of our strongest thoughts. We often see what we are looking for and create our own reality. I realized my habit of looking at work emails early in the morning and late at night was creating a reality of stress and anxiety. I decided I needed to break this habit to end this cycle of stress and anxiety. Since then I have turned email notifications off from my phone and no longer use my phone to check work emails. 95% of the emails I will likely get between 5pm one day and 8am the next can be handled the next day. For the other 5%, if it is urgent I can be reached on my cell phone. I want to be mentally and physically present when I am home. Often when I am reading and responding to work emails at home I am not mentally present. So far this has been working for me.

Momentum

Momentum is important to maintain habits but requires the discipline of a predictable routine. One of the ideas that Hardy shared was to bookend your day. Bookending your day means controlling how it starts and how it ends. As we all know, anything can happen during the day and your plans can be crushed, however, we have the ability to control the start and finish. For starting my day I like to read, journal, and meditate. I try not to allow the concerns and worries of the day to encroach on this time which is why it has been helpful to turn off email notifications from my phone. Hardy describes what he calls a “calibration appointment” in the morning which consists of 15 minutes of looking over his 1 year, 5 year, quarterly, monthly, and daily goals. While I have not been going through these for myself every single day, I did take the time to think through some of my goals. For me this goes back to our thoughts and how our life moves in the direction of our thoughts. If I don’t consistently remind myself of my goals I tend to forget about them. I become what I described earlier as a passive receiver just drifting through life. I find I need to remind myself of my goals so that I can pursue them daily and adjust them as needed. As this book conveys, I will not be able to achieve most of my goals in a day but through consistent habits and choices and the power of the compound effect, over time I can achieve my goals.

Influence

I am 100% responsible for what I feed my mind. I control who I spend time with, the environment I put myself in, and what I choose to dwell on. That last one of what I choose to dwell on has become painfully apparent to me. When I have a bad call with a client at work or experience a setback do I choose to mull over it and tell my friends or spouse about it when I get home? When I feel like someone has done me wrong do I choose gossip about it and replay it over and over in my head? What I ultimately learn over and over is that I give power to these negative experiences when I choose to talk about them and think about them. This can be hard to come to terms with emotionally because like many others my inclination is to be a victim. Being a victim is far easier because I do not have to take responsibility. However, in order to experience the compound effect in a positive way I need to take responsibility of what influences my mind and my habits.

Although applying the compound effect isn’t easy to accomplish, it isn’t very complicated. It’s all about discipline, consistency, and a focus on the long term rather than the short term. As Hardy explained near the beginning: our problem isn’t a knowledge problem but an application problem. We know what we’re supposed to do but fail to do it. I encourage you to try some of these principles, see what works, and watch how the compound effect can change areas of your own life.

Atomic Habits

I heard about Atomic Habits from a podcast I frequently listen to. The idea that you can change your life by implementing a few new habits sounds very sexy. Everyone desires something whether it is money, power, status, praise, approval, to lose weight, or be less stressed. The book title may give the same impression, but the reality that James Clear presents is very different. Clear shows how it is the 1% improvements that are not noticeable in the short run that change you in the long run. Can one small habit change your life? No, but consistently applying the right habits over time and adding new ones can transform you through small changes. That is why I love the meaning “atomic” from the title of the book. In one sense it is the smallest unit of matter but in another sense it is something with extreme energy and power.

Identity

One of the points which Clear makes is that we focus too much on the results, goals, and outcome we want instead of focusing on our identity. Start with your identity and work backwards from the results that you want to the type of person who gets those results. First decide the type of person you want to be and then prove it to yourself through small wins. Clear states “Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity.” Instead of blindly following the norms, face life head on, decide who you want to be, and implement habits to become that person.

The steps

The crux of the book is defining what a habit is. Clear defines a habit as having 4 parts:

  1. Cue – our brains are constantly looking for rewards
  2. Craving – the desire to change our internal state
  3. Response – the actual habit
  4. Reward – the reason for our habit, satisfaction

Clear also develops the 4 laws of behavior change:

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

In order to break bad habit we must do the opposite:

  1. Make it invisible
  2. Make it unattractive
  3. Make it difficult
  4. Make it unsatisfying

My habit

As I read the book I came up with a number of new habits I wanted to implement and a few bad habits that I want to break. However, I realized if I try to accomplish all of them at once I will probably accomplish none. The single habit I landed on is my exercising. At the end of 2018 I trained for and ran a full marathon. Once I got into the habit of running it became “easy” for me to just look at my schedule and run the allotted miles for that day. Ever since I finished that race I have struggled to maintain an exercise rhythm since the goal I was training for is gone. I have a foggy notion of what I would like to do but until I make a concrete plan nothing will change. When Clear described how we must associate a time and location with our habit, things changed for me. I wrote down 5-6 workouts that meet my current fitness goals and wrote this statement in my notebook: I will do my pre-determined workout at 6pm in my garage after I get home from work. This is no longer foggy. I know what I am going to do, when I am going to do it, and where I will do it.

Action vs Motion

Another idea that helped me was the idea of action versus motion. Motion is the planning, strategizing, and learning that go into the habits we want. Motion can make you feel that you are getting a lot done but really is a form of procrastination. Action is the actual behavior that delivers and outcome. In order to master a habit you have to get in the repetitions. I find this happens a lot with my reading. I love to read, learn, and share what I have learned with others. However, there are many things that I read which I should put into practice but until I do so they remain motion. Someone told me it is ok to sharpen the sword but at some point you have to use it.

Don’t miss habits twice

Clear points out that when we are developing new habits in our lives we should never miss a habit twice. If you miss it once you can call it an accident but if you miss it twice you are starting a new habit. This concept is extremely important when habits get difficult like when you are tempted to miss a workout on days you don’t feel like working out. On those days when you follow through with the habit you reinforce the type of person you are. You string together and unbroken chain of performing the habit. It is like the brick layer who lays one brick each day with the goal of building a wall. If he consistently lays bricks each day, after many days he will have the wall. If he stops laying bricks because it’s too hard, he doesn’t feel like it, or he is not seeing any improvement, all he will have is a couple of bricks but no wall.

Atomic Habits provided me with a framework of how habits work, how to implement good habits, and how to overcome bad habits. James Clear does not pretend that there are any quick fixes and any good habits we want will come through long term thinking rather than short term thinking. He provides many insights on how to make the process easier & more effective. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to improve themselves, especially to people who feel stuck in their current routine and habits and know they need to change.