Why We Like Skipping Steps

When I was a child, I took great pride in my ability to skip bars when swinging across the monkey bars. Skipping one bar was an important milestone, but skipping two bars made me feel really special. I even got to a place where I could skip three. I did it because it was faster, because it was a challenge, and also because I was trying to show off. I thought that it proved I was “talented” and “athletic.” In reality, I developed this ability through frequent practice: Monkey bars was the main activity I did at recess.

Later I skipped steps as I bounded up and down the stairs, both because it was faster and because I could. I wanted to be tall and strong, and I wanted to show the world that I was those things. I might have also been a wee bit impatient. I was lucky to never fall off the monkey bars, but my older brother Nick, who also liked to skip bars, once fell and broke his arm. I did, however, fall down the stairs a few times, spraining my ankle each time.

Things were no different in the classroom. As a student, I took pride in skipping steps when solving math problems. I also preferred to skip the key steps of taking notes in class and doing practice problems. I thought that the fact that I could do well in math while skipping these steps proved I was smart. When math got tough, I was caught off-guard. I did very poorly in my first math class in college.

Self-Esteem

For most of my life, I had overly dependent self-esteem. This means that my sense of self-worth was derived from praise, good grades, and comparing well to my peers. As a result, I was eager to look smart; I skipped steps in order to prove that I was smart enough to skip. If you had to work hard, I believed, that meant you weren’t gifted.

This misguided way of thinking was coupled with a fixed mindset: I was certain that talent and intelligence were unchangeable, set in stone by genetics. Thus, it was very important to prove to myself that I was gifted because I “knew” that if you weren’t, you could never improve.

It was not until my late 20’s that I learned about the growth mindset and independent self-esteem and realized how problematic my mindsets were. Since then, I’ve tried to compare myself less and less to other people, instead comparing how I am today with how I was yesterday, last week, and last year. Now, rather than trying to prove that I’m already good enough, I’m working hard on the process of becoming better.

When to Skip and What it Means

Skipping steps isn’t always a bad thing. On the monkey bars, it was a legitimate, albeit risky, athletic challenge. While I almost always encourage students to show all their work on paper when doing math problems because it lightens their cognitive load, I sometimes choose to challenge myself to skip steps or do mental math, not because I want to show off, but because I want the challenge.

What I’ve realized is that the ability to skip steps doesn’t really demonstrate intelligence or talent – it demonstrates a high level of skill development. It shows a trained ability. So skipping steps can be a way to see how well developed your skills are. It can be a version of doing it the hard way, if the goal is to challenge yourself and see how far you’ve come. For example, I’ve done so much public speaking that I sometimes give talks just using a vague outline, rather than a fully written speech, which is something I could not have done three years ago.

But we need to keep in mind that skipping steps is always risky. It isn’t the way to learn new content or navigate content we’re struggling with, and we shouldn’t skip steps in high-stakes situations like tests.

Beyond Academics

The desire for shortcuts is widespread.

Many people want a successful business, but don’t want to do the hard work or experience the failures of true entrepreneurship. Isn’t there a get-rich-quick scheme I could use?

Many people want the glory of an athletic victory, but don’t want to put in the hours of daily practice that are required to become a champion. Can’t I just find the sport where I’m so naturally gifted that I don’t have to practice?

Many people want to lose weight, but don’t want to exercise or practice the steady discipline of healthy eating. Isn’t there a magic pill I can take?

Many parent want to see their children develop executive function, but don’t want to give them space to try things on their own and potentially fail. Can’t someone just fix my child?

(see also: Grow vs. Fix)

None of this is to judge. I’m as guilty of this sort of thinking anyone. The best solution I’ve found is to choose a process-based identity, where I focus on consistent effort rather than immediate results, and then steadily engage in practices that reinforce that identity. I find that it helps to take my eyes off of the prize and keep my eyes on the process.

 

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.

Tie Your Shoes

No serious basketball player would ever step onto the court without first properly tying his shoes. Sure Chris, but how is this related to academics?

Well, doing basic, boring things correctly is fundamental to all performance, from the NBA to the classroom. For example, not showing your work on a math test is like not tying your shoe laces before a basketball game. Sure, you’ve saved a little time, but at what cost?

John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, understood the importance of getting the fundamentals right. The very first thing he taught his players was how to properly put on their socks. That’s right, Wooden taught Kareem Abdul-Jabbar how to put on his socks. Why? Because he didn’t want anyone getting a blister from a wrinkle in their sock because that could cause them to miss practice. Wooden led the Bruins to ten NCAA championships during the 12 years he was their coach.1

Success in school starts with similarly basic, boring things. The fundamentals of brain health – nutrition, exercise, and sleep – form the foundation on which our ability to learn rests. In a tech-happy world full of iPads and fancy educational apps, we need to remember that old-school studying – using the textbook, taking notes, asking questions, and making flashcards – are still very effective. It doesn’t have to be shiny and new and exciting to be valuable.

Brainstorming and making an outline is still the most reliable way to begin the writing process. Routine practice of math facts helps support students’ success as they ascend math’s upside-down pyramid. Showing your work on a math problem greatly reduces the likelihood of errors because it effectively manages cognitive load.

These things are as basic and boring as tying your shoes – and just as essential. None of these simple techniques are below you. Even professional basketball players have to put on their socks properly. No one gets to ignore the fundamentals.

So please, tie your shoes.

 

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.

 

Work Cited

1 Wooden, John. Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. Contemporary Books, 1997.

Image Credit

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/shoes-lebron-nike-spalding-1011596/.

Rely on Reminders not Memory

Perhaps the most common error in strategy students commit is relying on memory rather than relying on reminders. Students aren’t the only ones making this mistake, of course. Adults also rely too much on memory and not enough on reminders. I know because I used to be one of those adults.

There have been countless times when I had the intention to do something but then forgot. The things I forgot ranged from the mundane, such as stopping by the grocery store on the way home from work, to the very important, such as purchasing plane tickets before they become extremely expensive. I spent most of my life avoiding using reminders as a matter of pride. “I’m smart enough to remember,” I told myself. For me, at least, it took many painful mistakes for the lesson to sink in. The lesson was simple: I couldn’t rely on my memory.

Now, this isn’t because I have an especially weak memory. Quite the opposite is true: My academic career showed me that my memory was exceptionally strong. One friend nicknamed me “The Sponge” because my brain would readily absorb and be able to recall whatever it was taught. For example, I was shown the first 20 digits of pi for a minute in 6th grade, and I’ve been able to recite them ever since.* Experiences like this, however, simply bred in me overconfidence. They led me to resist using any tools that could help me remember things.

Gradually, I realized that I didn’t just need reminders. I wanted them. They make life much easier. I looked back on my time as a student and realized that I had been making school harder than it really is.

Intelligence, Productivity, and Creativity

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” ―David Allen

Reminders decrease my cognitive load, which frees up brainpower that I can put to better use. I can more easily focus on my work. My creativity and my productivity increase. I no longer worry about forgetting things, so I have less anxiety. I’m more reliable, and I’m better at making time for friends. In short, reminders make me both happier and more effective.

In the end, my shift from relying on memory to relying on reminders came down to giving myself permission to be human. Robots might one day have perfect memory, but I’m not a robot. I’m a human being, and humans forget things, which is okay because humans also invented some pretty handy tools to deal with forgetting, the most important of which is writing.

A Toolkit of Reminders

As my life has become increasingly busy, I’ve come to utilize several overlapping systems of reminders:

  • Writing things on my hand
  • Sticky notes
  • Signs posted at my desk
  • Daily to-do lists
  • Weekly to-do lists
  • Long-term to-do lists
  • Emails sent to myself
  • And Google Calendar, synced to my phone

Note how most of that list is super low-tech. It doesn’t have to be fancy and digital to be effective.

But wait, you might be thinking, Why all the overlap?

Well, the thing is, I don’t really trust the reminders either. Like many people, I’m inclined to conveniently “forget” to do things that I don’t want to do, so I might avoid looking at my list of chores. But if I put something down as a reminder in more than one place, I’m much more likely to see it. At least that way, I can’t lie to myself and say I didn’t remember. The more important something is, the more places it goes.

Modeling

Parents and educators can subtly communicate the necessity of reminders through leading by example. For instance, when a student mentions something important but then moves right on to talking about something else, say, “Hold on. I have to write that down because I’m probably going to forget about it.” Every time a student sees this happen, they’re being reminded of the fact that the brain is a forgetting machine, and the number one strategy to deal with forgetting is writing things down.

You’ll find that modeling the use of reminders is much more effective than teaching students about the use of reminders. Teenagers especially don’t like to listen to advice and often reject even very good advice. Remember, a teenager is like a Chinese finger trap. But teenagers are not immune to behavioral contagion. Far from it. We all have the tendency to do whatever those around us do. So use reminders consistently, and the behavior will probably rub off on your children.

Habits

For regular, recurring tasks that I want to do, such as practicing Spanish on Duolingo, I will create recurring appointments with myself on Google Calendar. That way, at the same time every day, I’m reminded to practice Spanish. Such an item might also get written on a daily to-do list because I enjoy the satisfaction of crossing off completed tasks. Duolingo, by the way, knows the importance of reminders and will send you an email every day reminding you to practice.

If I succeed in remembering to practice Spanish every day at roughly the same time, after several weeks, it will start to become a habitual, automatic routine. This is the ultimate in shifting away from a reliance on memory. The reminders become unconscious cues that trigger the routine.1 Eventually, I won’t need any reminders at all.

The traditional way students rely on reminders rather than memory is the oft-dreaded planner. The planner is a fantastic tool, but many students hate it. There are many alternatives, including to-do lists and electronic calendars. But some of the most successful students graduate beyond reminders by developing the habit of engaging with every class, every day.

However, developing new habits is hard, so at the beginning, the more reminders the better. It can even take months before a habit is well established enough to be done without any reminders. And because habits are so difficult to establish, it’s best to only work on one new habit at a time.2

Parents can lead by example here too. What’s one thing that would improve your life if you did it on a regular basis? You might be able to think of many things, but just pick one, set up some reminders, and make it a habit.**

 

*I later figured out that the reason my memory appears to be so good is because I’m constantly engaging in mental recall practice.

**If you’d like coaching on how to establish a new habit, this is my specialty.

 

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.

 

Works Cited

1 Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House, 2012.

2 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.

Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/laptop-apple-keyboard-technology-2592623/.

Written Reminders: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/sticky-note-paper-notebook-pencil-2586309/.

Planner: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/day-planner-calendar-organizer-828611/.