Why I Carried a 7-Pound Dictionary for 2 Years

A “transformation” is a powerful experience. I’ve experienced at least one. That transformation took about three months. Through it, an idiot became an honors student.

In 8th grade, my teachers passed out little pieces of paper with our cumulative GPA and class ranks. My GPA was 2.0, and I was in the 50th percentile. Can you get more average than that?

For the first couple of years of high school, I remained an average student. Junior year, I had a teacher who paid attention to me and I did a bit better. But by that time, I believed I was an idiot. This judgment wasn’t accurate, but it was what I believed.

College started out the same, but went downhill. My junior year, the business school set me free to pursue other opportunities. With a GPA of 2.0, I spent a year as a journalism major. Then I dropped out.

Six years later, I returned. After two years of straight A’s, I graduated with honors.

I’ve often wondered what changed between School 1.0 and School 2.0. A couple of months ago, I figured it out.

School 2.0: The Little Things Made the Difference

DictionaryWhen I went back to school, I’d let go of the idea that I was an idiot. But I still believed my chances of graduating were slim. So before classes started, I went to the bookstore and bought a copy of every study skills book they stocked. I read those half-dozen books and implemented most of the study skills. For two years I carried the seven-pound American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language with me. If I read a word I didn’t understand, I looked it up and made a 3×5 flash card to learn it.

Until recently, I attributed my School 2.0 success to being older, more mature, or more committed. And those were all true. But I now know my results changed because of that dictionary (and all the other study skills) I practiced daily.

It wasn’t just that I was older. I replaced my C-student study habits with A-student study habits.  Wikipedia defines a habit as a repeated behavior routine that tends to occur unconsciously. It’s the unconscious part that matters. Our brains insist on avoiding repeated decision-making wherever possible. Why? Because it’s too expensive.

Making Decisions is Expensive

Although many of us struggle to create new, good habits, our brains habituate anything we do often. This seems to be an evolutionary adaptation to offset how much energy it takes to make decisions.

The human brain is unusual.  It features a huge cerebral cortex that allows deliberate thinking. That includes reflection on the past, consideration of the future and making decisions. Decisions might include many options while considering dozens of variables. This power comes at a cost.

Our brains burn 20% of all the calories we consume while only representing 2% of our body weight. Pound for pound, our brains use ten times the energy of the average body part.

Of all the things our brains do, the hardest kind of thinking is decision-making.

So our brains have evolved to streamline expensive, repetitive decisions. As your brain makes decisions over and over, it delegates that routine to a more automated part of the brain. That routine moves from the expensive world of thinking to the world of the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is the part of our brains that Nike loves. It is the world of “just do it.” The basal ganglia is home to our habits. Performing habits costs the brain next to nothing in calories.

New year’s resolutions “die” because they don’t get repeated consistently enough to make it to the basal ganglia. If the hard work of deciding is too inconsistent, it never becomes a habit and we quit trying.

Be a Habit Master

As I write this, we are days away from 2016. Soon you may resolve to start (or stop) doing something in the new year. You will resolve to create a habit.

You probably think you already know a lot about habits. You think if you can somehow repeat your resolution every day for 21 days, you’ll have nailed it. Not true. Research shows you can create some habits in a couple of days while others take months.  The average seems to be 45 days.

You may be so uninformed when it comes to habits that creating the hard ones might be too hard for you. That is why I invite you to improve your chances by understanding more about habits.

Your Habit-Study Habits

habit-2The book I’ve gifted more than any other is Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge.  I suggest you start your habit schooling by reading that little book.

Furthermore, I suggest you follow Olson’s advice from that book and build the habit of reading just 10 pages from a book each day.  If you do that with The Slight Edge, you’ll finish it in three weeks. If you follow Olson’s advice for a year, you could read a dozen books about habits.

Next, I’d suggest you read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Of the habit books I’ve read, that was the most comprehensive. It’s longer, but at 10-pages daily, you’ll finish it before World Kidney Day (March 4th).

You are not a reader, but a listener. Podcasts are another way to learn the ins and outs of habits. If you’re an experienced podcast listener, search for one of the authors mentioned here. If you’re not experienced with Podcasts, ask your 20-something niece for help.

Wherever you are effective today, you have habits that lead to effectiveness. Wherever you are lousy, you have habits that lead to lousy. If you want to be effective where you are not, create good habits. If you want to be a habit master, understand the nature of habits.

More next time.



Habit Master Study Schedule


The Slight Edge [Jeff Olson]


The Power of Habit [Charles Duhigg]


Meet Your Happy Chemicals [Loretta Graziano Breuning]


Once you’ve gotten this far, click to schedule a call with Jim for more

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