The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Why I read it…  After years of trying to crack the nut of students revising independently, I decided to read about the science behind how we form habits. However, I was keen to skip the fad-like, motivational angle that many books about habit take; you know, the writers who promise they will break your worst habits with 3 simple steps and a can-do attitude. Charles Duhigg combines his well-honed writing as a reporter for the New York Times, with a commitment to studying scientific research, to bring us a thoroughly technical, yet readable and enjoyable, exploration of habits. That’s why it got my vote.

In summary:

Duhigg sets out to review research, as I have alluded to, and then contextualises these findings in both hypothetical scenarios, and in real-world examples. What I admire about Duhigg’s book is that he isn’t trying to peddle his own brand of habit-busting snake oil. He accepts that there isn’t one formula to break a habit, levelling with the reader that there is much to explore. Therefore, he doesn’t patronise us with oversimplification, but lets us in on the complexity – relying on his fluent prose and range of examples to sustain our curiosity and interest.

Key takeaways:

  1. Habit forming in 3 steps: Cue, Routine, Reward. Duhigg bases much of the book on the MIT research on the neurological loop that forms habits. The cue, or prompt to do something; followed by the routine, which is the action you perform; and finally the reward, perhaps a feeling or a physical reward for the action, which tells your brain if it was worth it, and if forming a habit would be worthwhile. The more this loop repeats, the quicker and easier it becomes, and therefore a habit is formed.
  2. Habit forming reduces brain effort. A study of rats being released into a maze to find chocolate revealed that, at first, their brain activity was at a high capacity while they figured out the route. Over time, their brain activity significantly reduced as the routine became habit. This is why we can, with practice, reverse our car out of the drive, or do other seemingly complex tasks, while we think about other things. In other words, forming habits is a brilliant way to free up our brains to engage elsewhere.
  3. Habit forming and willpower can improve with kindness, positivity and autonomy – this one sang to me. Duhigg cites a study where participants’ willpower and performance improved when they were greeted and treated warmly. Similarly, many workplaces have found that employees who are given greater autonomy form efficient, lasting habits. The takeaway here is that emotional association and sense of identity can contribute to how we form good habits. Now, that’s exciting.
  4. Keystone Habits (see my favourite moment below). This term refers to how we can identify certain habits in our lives, that either exist currently, or could exist, that are so productive and important, that they can create a series of other good decisions and habits: a chain reaction.

Favourite quote:

‘Alcoholics Anonymous forces participants to create new routines for what to do each night instead of drinking. You can relax and talk through your anxieties at meetings. The triggers and rewards stay the same, but the behaviour changes’ 

Of course, habit and addiction are interlinked. Studies throughout suggest it is very difficult to stop your brain feeling the ‘cue’ to do something; equally, a reward or positive feeling is hard to change. But if you change the routine, you can accept that the cue and reward may stay the same. At AA, the members may feel the cue to drink, but they replace the drinking (routine) with talking. Duhigg and these studies aren’t claiming that we can eradicate unwanted cues from popping into our head, but by changing the routine, we can transform the habit into something else.

Favourite moment:

How did Paul O’Neill transform Alcoa (Aluminium firm) when he took over as CEO? Exciting innovation? Charisma? No, he stipulated that all safety procedures in their factories must be changed. It became an obsessive review to make sure that the health and safety protocols were followed properly. The consequence? Well, the company’s productivity and value sky rocketed. It was in getting this ‘keystone habit’ right, that many others fell into place.

Question and reflect

  • Let’s look at some of our daily habits – can we identify the cue, routine and reward, and use that knowledge to either improve those habits, change them, or to replicate into other healthy habits?
  • What keystone habits could we reflect upon, or create, in order to improve other areas of productivity or success in our lives? As a teacher, I think basic classroom routines at the start of a lesson, for example, are keystone habits to then improve attitude to learning, mutual respect, etc. well beyond that part of the students’ day. One good habit spawns another.

Read this if…

You want to understand how we can form or change habits

You like a good mix of anecdotal evidence, scientific research, and brilliant writing

Support bookshops and buy it here

Retrieval Practice, by Kate Jones

Why I read it…  Quizzing and retrieval practice was, I suppose, an instinctive part of my teaching without knowing much about the benefits, or how to properly use the concepts. In 2016, I became exposed to a wave of research through conferences and books, which I’ve been pursuing ever since. The elements of retrieval practice (the act of recalling learned information from memory) were of high interest to me, so I was delighted when Kate Jones released this book to high acclaim. And it is worth all of the praise!

In summary:

Firstly, if you’re not familiar with the term or concept, retrieval practice is the act of recalling information from memory, and indeed attempting to strengthen that original memory. As Jones quotes from Robert Bjork, ‘using your memory, shapes your memory’. If we want to learn and remember things for the long term, to be recalled at will, it is essential that we strengthen these memories through our teaching approaches and tasks. Here, the term retrieval practice encompasses the various, evidence-based methods we can use in the classroom (and outside, for non teachers!) to improve our ability to remember and recall information.

You could be forgiven for assuming that retrieval practice, or its key concepts, might just about fill a single blog post. But Jones proves how multi-faceted and complex retrieval practice can and should be. It is not merely starting your lesson with a quiz, or indeed a standalone topic; it feeds into all elements of our teaching, and is all part of that great ecosystem of learning.

Jones has researched the book brilliantly; the first 74 pages cover what research suggests about retrieval practice, breaking down different studies and the views of experts. Once we arrive at retrieval task ideas, we understand the concept well enough to appreciate HOW they will aid student learning, and how to use retrieval practice in a variety of ways.

Key takeaways:

  1. This is part of the puzzle, not THE puzzle. While Jones demonstrates how retrieval practice links to everything we do in the classroom, she is clear that it is not a silver bullet alone. The handy infographic on chapter one is an excellent visual display of how it is just one piece of the puzzle.
  2. Low effort, high impact. Sustainability is important for teachers; regardless of impact on learning, strategies that we adopt must not be onerous in planning or delivery. Jones discusses a shift during her career (that many of us can relate to) from cumbersome planning for tasks, to focusing on tasks that are easy to create and adapt for future use. The ideas in the book reflect this principle: low effort, high impact.
  3. Involve everyone – here, Jones cites Tom Sherrington and his advice that our retrieval tasks, unlike questioning of individual students, or checking a couple of students’ work, should involve all of the class. How? By creating tasks that allow students to access the answers after, and / or self-check them. Then the whole class can compare their understanding or knowledge to the answers, rather than us unwittingly checking the knowledge of a few. The tasks provided in this book adhere to the ‘involve everyone’ principle.

Favourite quote:

It’s a salad analogy, because it made me chuckle, and because it makes perfect sense!

‘Just like a one-off salad won’t change your physique, a one-off retrieval quiz won’t guarantee information can be retrieved from long-term memory. Retrieval practice, like exercise, must be consistent, regular and the level of challenge should be appropriate with desirable difficulties. A salad alone does not make up a healthy diet, in the same sense that retrieval practice shouldn’t be used as the only strategy to support teaching and learning.’

Favourite moment:

My favourite thing about this book is that Jones constantly reflects on how retrieval practice can be used in conjunction with other deliberate teaching methods. You feel as though you’re learning a huge amount about one topic (which you might expect when you buy a book on it!), but the real thrill is that you’re actually learning about so many other disciplines, areas of research, and methods of teaching. Retrieval Practice is packed with wisdom, research, practical ideas, and the voices of many experts.

Question and reflect

  • When we make retrieval quizzes and recap prior knowledge, do we understand how multi-faceted retrieval practice can be, and vary our tasks accordingly?
  • Have we prioritised the concepts of retrieval practice so that they are an integral part of our curriculum and planning?
  • Are we using retrieval practice to help our students improve their ability to self-test and recall their knowledge independently? We can design and explain tasks that students are able to use on their own, to keep the amazing benefits of retrieval practice alive when they are outside of our lessons.

Read this if…

You want to find out more about how a range of educational research can fit into sensible and sustainable teaching methods, particularly on retrieval practice

You want to find a wide-ranging bank of resources that link to, and build upon, the theory you learn in the first half of the book

You want to improve your teaching. Simple as that!

Support bookshops and buy it here

Make Your Bed, by Admiral William H. McRaven

Why I read it…   You might have seen the videos of Admiral William H. McRaven delivering a Commencement Speech at the University of Texas in 2014. It is perfect assembly fodder: here are links to the full speech, and the slightly dramatized version.  I don’t delve into works by armed forces personnel often, but I enjoyed his delivery style and the simplicity of his message; when I realised he had turned the concepts of the speech into a short book, I bought a copy for myself and each member of the Senior Leadership Team when I departed my previous school last summer.

In summary:

McRaven outlines 10 principles to live your life by, based on his long and distinguished career in the US Navy. Each principle is a bit of a cliché, but what some of them lack in originality, they make up for in clarity and authenticity. He uses many anecdotes from his career; not eye-bulging, macho-military stories, but tales of connection, spirit, and hope.

Key takeaways:

  1. Start your day with a task completed: this is where the title of the book comes from: in the military, you begin the day by making your bed. Starting the day with a task completed, McRaven argues, gives you a small sense of pride, and encourages you to complete another task; your day quickly becomes filled with many tasks completed, and teaches you that the little things matter. And whatever kind of day you have, you return home to a made bed!
  2. You can’t go it alone. McRaven spends a lot of the book talking about the importance of team work and community, often citing how, when members of a team struggle, the others need to pick up the slack and cover for them, knowing that it will be done for them in return when they need it. I wonder if we always treat our team mates with the same level of unwavering support?
  3. Don’t ring the bell – in the centre of the SEAL Training compound, there is a brass bell. Whenever you want to quit the training programme, just go and ring the bell. The instructors even encourage you to, knowing that there will be far greater temptations to quit when the SEALs are out in the field. McRaven encourages us to face up to our most challenging moments, and to never, ever, ring the bell, however tempting it seems at that moment.

Favourite quote:

Describing the ‘munchkin crew’ full of the shortest cadets in the cohort: ‘the other crews would make fun of the tiny little flippers they put on their tiny little feet. But somehow these guys, from every corner of the nation and the world, always had the last laugh, swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us. SEAL Training was a great equalizer; nothing mattered but your will to succeed.’

Favourite moment:

During Hell Week, Navy SEAL cadets are punished with a series of gruelling tasks; one of which involves them spending the night in the mud and water, freezing half to death. If they want to quit, all they have to do is ask. Many do. McRaven depicts the moment when the group of cadets are at breaking point, and some are beginning to crawl towards the instructors. And then a voice rises in the wind; a cadet is singing. The group begins to join in; they link arms, knuckle down, and find solidarity and strength in communal song.

Question and reflect

  • The bonds that service members seem to forge are quite profound; most of our jobs aren’t so high stakes, but can we improve our sense of community and shared responsibility as a team?
  • The ‘make your bed’ mantra is simple but effective; what habits can we work into our morning routines to start the day with a task completed? Admittedly, mine is walking the dog, which feels like a win at the moment!
  • What I loved about the speech that the book is based upon, is the spirit and pride that McRaven possesses when he speaks to these college students. I wonder, if you or I were going to deliver such a speech, what words of hope and inspiration from our lives would we offer?

Read this if…

You like concise, easy to follow motivational books

You are planning to share simple, effective strategies to motivate young people (the speech is great for assemblies!)

Support bookshops and buy it here

I Can’t Accept Not Trying, by Michael Jordan

Why I read it…  I’m a huge NBA, Michael Jordan, and Space Jam (yes, that’s right) fan, and that was compounded in 2020 with the excellent documentary The Last Dance, on Netflix. Jordan doesn’t go out of his way to ingratiate himself with the public or his team mates, but his dedication to honing his craft is unparalleled.

In summary:

A very concise (36 pages) guide, written in 1994, about what it takes to become the best. Michael Jordan shares the golden rules that he has lived his life by, and what it lacks in filler, it certainly makes up in clear, focused guidance that can be transferred to any industry, any level of performance, or indeed any aspect of our lives.

The title hints at what is to come: Jordan recognises that talent isn’t bought, but his career was based on working harder than anyone else, always taking the shot, and being pragmatic and diligent in his quest for improvement. He expects the same of those around him.

Key takeaways:

  1. Dream big, but achieve it in small steps – Jordan advocates high ambitions, but cautions the reader that without a series of small steps, big dreams become intimidating, and gradual progress feels disheartening. He discusses how he would construct small, achievable goals, with success in each providing motivation and satisfaction that the dream is one step closer.
  2. Fear is an illusion – this chapter title could be mistaken for a machismo soundbite, but Jordan does not deny or belittle fear. He likens fear to a barrier that you create: ‘you think something is standing in your way, but nothing is really there.’
  3. There are no short cuts – Jordan played as hard in practice as he played in the games (seen in The Last Dance) and expected the same of others. He seems incredulous that some can expect to practice or prepare with less intensity than when they need to perform in the real thing; he argues that you can’t turn commitment on or off like a tap, so you’d better keep it running!
  4. Master the fundamentals – no matter how successful Jordan became, he stuck to this mantra: constantly honing and mastering the basics of the game. Sometimes success and ambition can be a distraction; sometimes you can perform well for a time with a hot streak and a bit of luck. But working on the fundamentals will ensure long-lasting success and keep you going when other things ebb and flow.

Favourite quote:

‘Find fuel in any failure. Sometimes failure gets you closer to where you want to be. If I’m trying to fix a car, every time I try something that doesn’t work, I ‘m getting closer to finding the answer.’

Favourite moment:

Jordan is infamous for being one of the best basketball players of all time, and certainly the most well known. But he spends more time in the book discussing team work than anything else. He dedicates his most passionate words to how his Bulls worked as a team, won as a team, overcame more talented opposition as a team. For all of the critics who say he was difficult to play with, or an overly demanding teammate, this section of the book is a lesson for all readers: ignore placing individuals on pedestals, and celebrate how we can achieve things in teams.

Question and reflect

  • When we make a resolution or a target for ourselves, do we lay the ground work for this dream by plotting out the small steps that will take us to our goal?
  • What do we fear? Why does this fear exist? By thinking about our preparation and the opportunity in front of us, how can we overcome the barriers that we create?
  • We make commitments. We make dreams. But do we follow up with the same level of commitment and intensity every day, or just for the ‘big games’?

Read this if…

You want a concise, passionate guide about to how to develop an area of your life

You want to cut through the filler that so many books include, and just hear some experience and wisdom from the horse’s mouth.

I’m going to say it: read this if you are fan of Michael Jordan

Find it here

Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, by Jacqueline Novogratz

Why I read it… I’ve been an admirer of Jacqueline Novogratz ever since I read her book The Blue Sweater in 2010, and her amazing work with Acumen, a non-profit which creates sustainable solutions to poverty through investing in businesses and championing those who might not ordinarily receive support or finance. Her ‘Manifesto for a Moral Revolution’ sounded like the playbook I needed to connect with how I can contribute to the world like she has.

In summary

Novogratz details many experiences from her time with Acumen and beyond, sharing her own trips and adventures across the world, but just as importantly, we hear about many others, usually from developing countries, who have committed their life to making impactful changes to their community. They toil and push through all kinds of barriers with a relentless pursuit of success for themselves and those around them.

Within and between these anecdotes, Novogratz turns to us, the reader, and guides us to reflect on our own passions and moral compass, offering insights about how we too can take the right steps to make a change to our own world, and by consequence, the wider world. I defy anyone to close this book and ignore the final words: ‘The world is waiting for you.’

Key takeaways

I can’t possibly adhere to my rule of concise, 500-word book write ups and do this book justice, but here are 3 takeaways to start with!

  1. Don’t be despondent about incremental success: purposeful, worthwhile, long-term projects will hit snags along the way. They will fail. Look at your successes, however small, and use those to keep building. As Seth Godin writes ‘persistent people are able to visualise light at the end of the tunnel when others can’t see it’.
  2. Moral imagination – Novogratz discusses how wanting to be a changemaker isn’t simple or a one-off moment of self-gratification, reminiscing about an occasion at college when she naively donated to a charity without understanding the cause or the people involved. Moral imagination, she proposes, means connecting with people and systemic issues, and truly understanding causes of problems before we rush in to ‘solve’ them.
  3. Success is all around us, depending on how we define it – despite us being status-seeking beings, we can define success in healthier ways: our children’s happiness, putting someone before us, the causes we fight for, but how about a new model of success: did you put more into the world than you took out of it?

Favourite quote

This is a struggle. Novogratz has packed this book full of wisdom and experience. She doesn’t go out of her way to write in soundbites, but you could choose 5 inspirational quotes from every page; they emanate from her reflection and experience.

‘You may not yet have a crystal-clear sense of your purpose. That’s okay. It will grow with you. But if you have an inkling that you’d like your life to be about something bigger than yourself, listen to that urge. Follow the thread. The world needs you. Just start’

Favourite moment

My favourite chapter is ‘Accompany Eachother’ which reflects on the Jesuit notion that we ‘live and walk’ with those we serve. Several examples are given of when Novogratz, or others, connect with people to understand them and support them in their goals, standing with them during tough times and prosperous success. This accompaniment takes time, but, as she reflects: ‘I will hold a mirror to you and show you your value, bear witness to your suffering and to your light. And over time, you will do the same for me, for within the relationship lies the promise of our shared dignity and mutual encouragement needed to do the hard things.’   Wow.

Question and reflect

  • Have we thought about our moral purpose, and how we can make an impact on the world around us?
  • What is our perception of success? Are we doing enough to serve others, to enable their success?
  • ‘Each day we wake up to another chance to change the world’ – what step can we take today?

Read this if…

You want to gain a perspective of people around the world who are fighting to change themselves and their communities for the better

You want to reflect on your life, your choices, and how you can do more to change the world

You want to take Novogratz’ principles of redefining success, working through failure, accompanying others, and many other lessons, and apply them to your own life of workplace.

Find it here

Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey

Why I read it…  this was actually a Christmas present! But I have followed McConaughey’s career in the post-romantic comedy years as he has flexed his skills more in works like True Detective and Interstellar. I’ve always found him intelligent and reflective, and then I heard him on two podcasts: Dr Chatterjee and the High Performance Podcast and appreciated his Kerouac-style musings. So this was a pleasant surprise.

In summary:

This is an autobiography: ranging from early life, formative adolescent moments, life, career. However, where it differs from your average chronological memoir, is that McConaughey dedicates his life stories to picking out the Greenlights, those moments or ideals that propelled him forward.

While narrating his life events (in poetic and impressive fashion), he regularly pauses to reflect on what these moments taught him, and indeed can teach the reader. Sure, he dips into his work, but we spend more time in the wilderness or out on the road.

Key takeaways:

  1. Connection – you can tell from one interview that McConaughey is charming and charismatic; his energy is a draw. But he values true connection, whether that be with people he has worked for, or trailer park residents where he hitches up his trailer when he tours the country. He seems to go all in and fosters long-term, stare deeply into their soul, connection.
  2. Reflect on your evolution – when McConaughey could feel the lures of fame, he went to a monastery and met brother Christian, who gave him a listening ear. When he felt his roles becoming stale, he thought about what he wanted from his career, rejected lucrative offers and took a risk to reinvent himself. We could all benefit from a bit of discernment about who we are, and where we are going.
  3. Pinpoint your Greenlights – the book title is important, as McConaughey celebrates the moments in his life where he moved forward. He reflects on these ‘greenlights’ – how they occurred and what they lead to. Perhaps we should think about important moments and decisions in our lives that moved us forward.

Favourite quote: ‘I haven’t made all A’s in the art of livin, but I give a damn, and I’ll take an experienced C over an ignorant A any day’

Favourite moment:

When he was 18, McConaughey spent a year living in Australia as part of an exchange programme. The anecdotes are hilarious, but as throughout, there is a more profound reflection at play.  The risk of getting away and out into another culture are admirable for any young person, but it is the formation of his identity while he is there that is really worth reading about. The quiet nights, unfamiliar surroundings and lack of community (at first) force McConaughey to confront who he is and who he wants to become, and it really spoke to my 17-year-old self.

Question and reflect

  • In our busy lives, do we find our own ‘brother Christian’ who sits and listens to us, and helps us recalibrate?
  • Do we make brave choices or take risks, in order to stay true to who we are and our values?
  • When you come to reflect on your life, which connections and tales will you be proud to tell?

Read this if…

You like reading poetic, honest, self-deprecating, humorous and often profound reflections

Find it here

The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle

Why I read it… As part of a research project I was doing on staff wellbeing, I researched Self Determination Theory, a model which explores human needs. I wanted to experience these ideas in a workplace setting, and learn from other industries about how they create thriving cultures that allow people to belong and develop.

In summary:

The opening page informs us (if your Latin is rusty) that ‘culture’ comes from ‘cultus’, meaning care. That piece of etymology was a huge relief for me; this is what I was looking for.

Coyle draws upon a range of teams, industries and research studies to ponder how we can create healthy, purposeful cultures in our workplaces. He weaves in anecdotes and examples but also goes back to reflect with his own ideas, finishing each section with action points. Clean prose, well-researched ideas.

Key takeaways:

  1. Build safety – how much time and effort do we put into making sure our staff know that they belong? Coyle looks at studies of teams to see how the healthiest teams work together, and their sense of safety within the group counted for a lot: were they confident to contribute? Were they encouraged to throw big ideas out there? Had bad apples been eliminated from the team? Were the team thanked enough? This part of the book resonated most for me and has steered my thinking about how we build team cultures based on trust and opportunity.
  2. Shared vulnerability – leaders should ask questions, admit when they aren’t an expert in a certain domain, and seek help and counsel. ‘I screwed that up’ are the most important words a leader can say.
  3. Find your purpose, then over communicate it. Coyle examines how sometimes organisations can stray away from their mission and vision, getting bogged down in the day to day. Sometimes it takes a conscious realignment: what’s our purpose? How are we focused on it? Does everyone know it / understand it? Well, let’s keep telling them about it!

Favourite quote: ‘Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do’.

Favourite moment: Greg Popovich is used a few times in the ‘belonging’ section of the book. A slightly maverick NBA coach with a reputation as a volcanic bulldog with regards his temper, Coyle discusses how Popovich manages to have sky-high expectations of his players, whilst building excellent relationships with them. We hear how he has close proximity with his players when giving them feedback, how he takes an interest in their lives, and fascinatingly, how he uses team meetings (usually for basketball strategy and tactics) to teach and discuss other topical issues, in order to educate his players and promote wider interests. Coyle then links Popovich’s feedback style to an evidence-based approach, which includes 3 powerful ideas to include when developing people: ‘you belong to this group’, ‘this group is special’, and ‘I have high standards that I believe you can reach’.

Question and reflect

  • How can we enable our staff to be creative, autonomous and to feel trusted?
  • As leaders, are we prepared to share our vulnerabilities and what we don’t know? Do we ask for help?
  • What conditions can we create to help make our teams as effective as possible?

Read this if…

You are reflecting on culture within your organisation or team

You want to see a range of examples of healthy, thriving teams across many industries and professions

Find it here