10 life hacking tips for educators


Teaching | Tuesday, September 6, 2016

10 life hacking tips for educators

Educators always feel strapped for time. If we can change our habits and create more productive ones, we can gain valuable hours back. (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

Educators always feel strapped for time. If we can change our habits and create more productive ones, we can gain valuable hours back. (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

In workshops I’ve run, I often ask teachers, “What are the hurdles to reaching your professional goals?”

The most popular answer is always the same. Always.


So many of us educators feel overworked. We don’t have enough time to accomplish the important work that will have a huge impact on our students’ lives — or our own.

Time is a precious commodity that can’t be bought with money.

But what if we could make the most of the time we’re given? What could we accomplish? How would our impact be greater?

I think that’s why Charles Duhigg’s books really called to me from the bookstore shelves:

Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He has taken on habit-forming and productivity with relentless attention to detail and through well crafted storytelling.

If we want to ditch that textbook practice of scrambling to find time, we can listen to Duhigg’s ideas — many based on research and science — to get to breakthroughs.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from his two books:

The habit loop. (Source: "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg.)

The habit loop. (Source: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.)

1. Understand the habit loop. We are a creature of our habits. Duhigg breaks down how practically any habit works in this cycle:

  • Something triggers a routine in your life (the cue).
  • You perform that routine.
  • You get some reward (the reason you keep doing the routine).

If the trigger didn’t exist, we would never engage in that habit.

Our brains are wired to do the same action over and over because it takes less thinking power. That’s why we’re so driven by routines.

Those routines are strengthened because there’s something we get in return for them.

2. Hack your habits. Analyze your habits and start experimenting with alternatives that are more productive or that you’re happier with.

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped,” Duhigg writes.

His steps for doing that:

  • Identify the routine. That’s probably the easiest step in the process. We already know what we’re doing that needs changed.
  • Experiment with rewards. If we know what reward we’re seeking through our routines, we can create new routines that result in the same rewards.
  • Isolate the cue. Something triggers us into action. If we analyze what creates the craving, we can have better control over it.
  • Have a plan. Don’t just think, “Oh, I’ll do better at that.” Get specific with your plan to improve and create a new habit. “A habit is a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day,” Duhigg writes.

3. Analyze your cues. What triggers us to initiate our routines? Duhigg says it’s often one of these:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

When you notice a craving to initiate your routine, analyze those five factors. If you do that over time, you’ll see patterns and can better identify the real cue for your habit.

4. Find your “why”. To set powerful habits and reshape your actions, it’s best to come back to the real reason you act: your “why”. Ask yourself, “Why do I need to do this?” “What is my big motivation?” It could be family, health, the success of your students, or something else.

“Once we start asking why, those small tasks become pieces of a larger constellation of meaningful projects, goals and values,” Duhigg writes.

5. All-stars don’t make a great team. A successful group isn’t the sum of its parts, whether it’s students or teachers or committees. Duhigg quotes Laszlo Bock, the head of People Operations at Google, whose research shows:

  • Teams need to believe that their work is important.
  • Teams need to feel their work is personally meaningful.
  • Teams need clear goals and defined roles.
  • Team members need to know they can depend on one another.
  • Teams need psychological safety.

6. Mental models help us understand our lives and focus. Thinking through our lives and situations can be powerful, Duhigg writes. It can help us anticipate what will happen next. When we do that, we can plan the choices we will make.

To create mental models, we can narrate our lives. Explain what’s happening to you and around you as it’s happening.

We can anticipate what’s going to happen next based on what we see happening around us. Envision your day. Think through what will happen in class or in a meeting. It will help you to be prepared for anything.

7. Create SMART goals. Setting goals and putting them somewhere you can see are accepted steps for making meaningful change. So is setting SMART goals: goals that are …

  • Specific (defined and not vague)
  • Measurable (where you can measure success)
  • Achievable (with logical steps to success)
  • Realistic (can plausibly be done)
  • Time-based (with a set timeline)

8. Create “stretch goals,” too. SMART goals aren’t enough. Duhigg chronicles goal-setters who were reaching SMART goals that were too trivial and too easy to accomplish. We also need stretch goals, those big goals that make us reach out beyond our comfort zone.

“If you’re being constantly told to focus on achievable results, you’re only going to think of achievable goals,” Duhigg writes. “You’re not going to dream big.”

9. Use probability to make better decisions. Think about your decisions like a great poker player. They’re always running probabilities of success and potential profit to give themselves their best chance of succeeding.

Here’s the hard part about that: using probability isn’t certain. And we crave certainty. We want to know for sure what our outcome will be. “But the mistake some people make is trying to avoid making any predictions because their thirst for certainty is so strong and their fear of doubt too overwhelming.”

10. Intense focus on a little data is more powerful than having mountains of data. Duhigg describes the struggles of a struggling Cincinnati elementary school. Teachers had lots of data on students and fancy software to help teachers sort and view it.

It wasn’t making a bit of difference.

When teachers slowed down and focused intensely on small pieces of that data, big positive changes started happening. They used data rooms, wrote student data on index cards and created graphs on butcher paper. The teachers hated it at first, but by slowing down and focusing, they were finally able to use that data to improve learning.

Eventually, they came to love their analog, “pen and paper” data analysis and their data rooms.

“Rather than simply receiving information, teachers were forced to engage with it,” Duhigg writes.

Do these ideas resonate with you? You might want to dig deeper by reading the books. (That’s what made the most impact for me.)

[reminder]Which of these life hacks do you find most useful? What other life hacks do you recommend for educators?[/reminder]

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