One of the cornerstones of my philosophy is the simple truth that everything counts.
This tiny statement contains a depth of wisdom that I certainly cannot take credit for. The idea is a combination of many sources, but three men in particular deserve thanks for their influence: former professor of positive psychology at Harvard Tal Ben-Shahar, renowned self-development blogger James Clear, and the owner of Northwest Educational Services, Greg Smith, who shared with me the Buddhist proverb that appears later in this article. My deepest gratitude goes out to each of these men for the gifts that their work has brought into my life.
“Everything counts” actually has two meanings:
- Every step in the right direction is beneficial.
- Every moment is an opportunity to practice that should be taken seriously and given full attention and full effort.
Let’s begin by examining the first meaning.
Every step in the right direction counts as progress toward whatever goal you’re working on. Every step in the right direction takes you further along whatever mastery path you’re currently walking. Every time you choose salad over French fries, every time you take the stairs instead of the elevator, and every time you choose nature over television, you make your life incrementally better. Everything counts.
This attitude is really born out of the spectrum mindset, which is my antidote to black-and-white thinking. Goals like success, health, and happiness aren’t all-or-nothing entities; they reside at the idealized end of a vast continuum along which we are free to move. We can never truly arrive at the ideal, but we can steadily head in the right direction.
As we walk the path of self-improvement, our values should be our guiding star, and success can be redefined as moving toward our values.
The notion that every positive action counts is an important message for students to hear.
Sometimes students procrastinate and, as a result, don’t have time to do the ideal amount of studying, complete their entire homework assignments, or put an appropriate amount of time and energy into their papers. Unfortunately, many students reach this point and decide to do nothing. They figure that if there isn’t time to do a good job, it’s not worth the effort to try at all. This attitude is understandable, but it is highly detrimental to both learning and grades.
While it is, of course, better to study thoroughly over the span of several days, it’s still a good idea to cram for the test if that’s your only option. Cramming is far from ideal, but it’s a lot better than not studying at all. Likewise, if you don’t have time to read the entire chapter, reading part of the chapter is better than not reading any of it. Perhaps all you have time for is the chapter summary, and that’s still better than nothing. This sort of partial studying doesn’t result in good grades, but it can prevent severely low grades, so it is worth the effort. Everything counts.
It’s also important for students to do whatever they can on assignments. Of course it’s better to complete the entire set of homework problems, but it’s still better to do some of the problems rather than doing none at all. Even doing one problem out of 30 is better than making no effort because it begins the process of convincing your brain to care. If you don’t understand how to do the assignment, you can prepare your mind to understand it in the future by struggling with it today. Everything counts.
Likewise, students–especially perfectionists–often feel that they’d rather turn in nothing than turn in poor work. This is often devastating to their grades because earning a 0% on a homework assignment, paper, or project drags down a student’s percentage in the class significantly more than earning a 59%, even though both earn the same letter grade. The difference between a 0% and a 59% is twice as large as the difference between a D and an A, and yet both are considered “failing” grades.
So if you can’t finish the entire project, do as much as you can and turn it in. If you don’t have time to complete an edited final draft of an essay, turn in a rough draft. School isn’t pass/fail, even though we sometimes use those words; school is a system where everything counts.
Likewise, when it comes to brain health, every step in the right direction is beneficial. Every incremental improvement a student makes in his brain health results in school becoming slightly easier. If you’re a parent, please remember to lead by example. As often as you can, make healthy eating choices, exercise, and capitalize on opportunities to rest. Make the most of your time because every moment counts.
In our increasingly busy lives we have to learn to capitalize on every spare moment we have, but not in the way that most people think. Maximizing your time, to most people, means using every spare moment to be productive or socially connected via our smartphones. What I mean is maximizing our opportunities for genuine rest, the sort of rest that simultaneously allows our conscious minds to recover from stress and allows our unconscious minds time to do the critical background work of learning.
And the constant phone use isn’t saving us time, even if it feels that way. It’s actually much more efficient to check and reply to your email in just a few batches per day rather than bit by bit throughout your day. As Brian Johnson points out, most of us are allowing our smartphones to “paper-cut us with distractions” all day, every day. We’re better off using airplane mode to carve out times to do focused work and embracing the few opportunities we have left to be bored and alone.
Those two minutes you just spent reading email could have been used for mental recall practice. Every bit of studying counts. That 30 seconds you just used to check Instagram could have been used to take a microbreak. Every bit of rest counts.
The simple truth that every step in the right direction is beneficial takes on new power when we combine it with the concept of self-perception. By taking just a single step in the right direction, say, five minutes of homework, you can kick-start a feedback loop that leads to more and more progress. This often occurs because your brain observes you taking that small action and decides that, on at least some level, you are the kind of person who takes action, which makes it easier to keep going.
The belief that everything counts can help us overcome the inertia of inaction and build positive momentum.
Let us now turn to the second meaning of everything counts: the idea that every moment is an opportunity to practice that should be taken seriously and given full attention and full effort.
Here are some classic lines we get from students on a regular basis, all perfectly innocent but all terribly misguided:
“The teacher doesn’t check our work, she just checks to see if we did it, so it doesn’t matter if I answer all the parts of this question.”
“This is just practice, so I don’t need to show my work.”
“We’re not turning this in, so I don’t need to write neatly.”
“It’s just a rough draft, so I’m not worried about writing with proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.”
What these sentiments miss is the fact that all of the work counts, even when it isn’t counted for a grade. It all matters.
“How you do anything is how you do everything.” –Buddhist proverb
The work you do that isn’t graded for correctness–unassigned practice, studying, work that’s graded only on completion–still “counts.” It will get you better grades on future assignments and future tests, and it will set you up for better scholastic and career opportunities. It will literally pay off.
So write carefully. Try to spell correctly. Use proper grammar to the best of your ability. Show all your math steps. Do your practice as though you’re turning it in. And treat homework as practice for the test. By doing so, you’ll be much more likely to do well on the actual test. The more often you treat times that “don’t count” as though they do, the more doing it right will become automatic.
This approach helps cultivate independent self-esteem because your careful actions demonstrate to yourself that you can, in fact, do it well. This, along with the added practice you’re getting, helps reduce test anxiety.
You’ll also learn more readily, understand more deeply, and remember more clearly whatever you’re working on because acting like it all matters convinces your brain to care. When you act in accordance with the second meaning of everything counts, you demonstrate to yourself–and to your brain–that you give a darn.
Furthermore, every skill we learn lies upon a mastery path. Treating every moment as a part of the journey to mastery powerfully accelerates our progress.
School presents countless but often invisible opportunities for growth. The more you look for these chances to improve, the more likely you are to utilize them to your advantage.
An obvious and mundane example is resisting the urge to use your calculator because you want to capitalize on an opportunity to practice your math facts. A more difficult but much more profound example is taking a course that you find uninteresting seriously because you view it as an opportunity to practice learning. Learning how to learn, after all, is one of the primary purposes of school.
Another of school’s primary purposes is practicing doing work you don’t feel like doing. Because of this, boring assignments aren’t pointless. They are opportunities for learning how to work. Much of the work adults are required to do is boring but incredibly necessary busy-work: shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, as well as much of the work adults do to make a living. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that if you don’t learn how to work in high school, adulthood will be shockingly difficult.
Here’s another couple of classic student lines:
“Oh I understand most of it, so I don’t want to bother asking the teacher about that one thing I don’t get.”
“My grade is already good enough, so I don’t want to bother talking to the teacher about this grading discrepancy.”
Again, these sentiments are understandable, but they miss the critical truth that everything counts.
Everything you don’t understand creates an opportunity to practice asking questions. Every time you speak up to correct a grading error, you’re advocating for yourself, and in doing so, practicing being an active agent in your life. And that sort of personal ownership and agency is the most important skill a person can ever develop.
Bringing The Two Together
Although I’ve separated the two meanings of everything counts for the sake of this article, they are really two sides of the same coin, and we should be careful to keep both meanings in mind.
The first meaning of everything counts could be used to justify laziness if we make the mistake of congratulating ourselves for taking one step when we could have easily taken many more. How can we know when to push ourselves?
And the second meaning could lead us into the trap of perfectionism if we make the mistake of believing that every little thing we do must be done with the utmost precision. How can we know what’s good enough?
The wisdom of everything counts lies in the balance of these two perspectives. Every step in the right direction is a good choice, and every moment is a chance to practice doing our best. We must embrace both meanings simultaneously. We must see ourselves as good enough while still striving to become better. To do so is to wrestle with our very real limitations while pursuing our equally real–and grand–potential.
Toward A Better World
This philosophy goes far beyond school and career success.
In the modern world, most of the people we encounter on a daily basis are strangers. We tend to feel that we don’t need to be concerned for the other drivers on the road or the other shoppers at the grocery store because we’ll probably never see them again.
But every interaction is an opportunity to practice good manners, listening, and kindness. Every time someone disagrees with you, it’s an opportunity to practice civility and open-mindedness. Every aspect of who we are, including these moral behaviors, is a skill that is developed, like a muscle, through repetition. The more we practice, the better we become.
Every time someone is bullied or teased, the world gets a little bit worse. Every time someone who feels excluded is given attention and warmth, the world gets a little bit better. The quality of our society and the health of our global civilization is the sum total of trillions of these tiny, seemingly insignificant interactions.
We can’t allow the enormity of the world’s problems to prevent us from doing what we can. Every small, positive action we take helps: every dollar we give to charity, every time we give blood, every hour we volunteer. Every contribution counts.
I’m not perfect. No one is. But I’m getting better, slowly and steadily, because I believe that everything counts.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.