The Power Habit Lab
From Test Maven
It's easy enough to say that you should learn from your mistakes. What that actually looks like in practice is another question.
Power Student readers already know that you haven't learned from a mistake unless you've created a new habit because of it. Mistakes made have to be translated into lessons learned. Red ink has to be turned into Green Lights.
Because the Green Light method is about creating new habits based on the corrections you've received, each piece of feedback has to be translated into terms that can support a positive change in behavior. That is, each Green Light statement has to be positive, definite, and repeatable.
Keep these three qualities closely in mind as you develop your Green Lights, and you'll be amazed at your own progress.
A negative statement won't help you create better habits, for the simple reason that not doing something is the opposite of an action. You can't make a habit of not doing something.
So to create effective Green Light statements, you need to flip the sign: convert any negative feedback into positive statements.
If the red ink says, "fragment" or "oops, wrong sign" or "what were you even trying to spell here," you have to translate it into a positive action in order to benefit from it. "Don't write sentence fragments" is not a Green Light. Instead, write, "I will check each sentence to ensure it is complete." Instead of "Don't lose track of the negative signs in math problems," write, "When I finish solving a problem, I will review the steps to make sure I kept the right sign for each term at each step."
If your teacher is wise and compassionate, you're probably getting some positive feedback, too. Great! You don't have to flip the sign on that feedback. But do create a Green Light from it, so that you keep doing whatever you did right this time.
Vague ideas don't translate well into action. "Get better at quadratic equations" is not a Green Light. In order to improve a skill like factoring quadratics you need to identify what step in the process you're missing or performing incorrectly, and work on that. For example, you might conclude that you're forgetting to check whether the coefficients in a quadratic expression have a common factor. In that case, your Green Light statement would be, "When I start factoring a quadratic equation, I will check the coefficients for a common factor." Even better would be a physical action that you can visualize, like "tap the coefficient of each term with my pencil."
With an appropriately definite Green Light statement, you'll know exactly what to do next time, without even having to think about it.
On the other hand, if you get too specific with your Green Light statement, it will never apply to any situation except the one in which it originally arose. Take the following statement:
This aspect of Green Lights can be more difficult to master than the others. Sometimes it isn't obvious how to extend the idea beyond the particular situation. If you missed a True/False question on a history quiz, and the only mark is a red slash through the number, what can you really do with that? You could create a list of history facts you've had trouble recalling on quizzes, and that would have some value as a study guide. But it wouldn't be a Green Light list.
To develop a repeatable action out of a case like that, you may have to dig a little bit. The key is to ask "why" until you get down to the original cause:
"Why did I miss that True/False question?"
"Because I didn't know the answer."
"Why didn't I know the answer?"
"Because I didn't notice it in the text book."
"Why didn't I notice it in the textbook?"
"Because I wasn't taking notes on key facts."
And there's your repeatable action: when you study your history text book, you will take notes on key facts.
What I've learned from many years of teaching and tutoring is that a lot of problems ultimately come down to the same root causes. So you can often track down what's happening just by reviewing a study skills troubleshooting guide like the comprehensive skills checklist that I include in the Power Student Habit Lab.
Make sure your Green Light statements can apply to situations similar to the one you're looking at, not only situations that are exactly like it.
When to Review
Just writing down the Green Lights is a very effective first step towards improving your work and making future tasks easier. By applying the three criteria (Positive, Definite, and Repeatable) to each statement, you've forced yourself to think carefully and concretely about exactly what your weakness is and how to overcome it.
But just writing down the changes is not going to change anything. You need to revisit these Green Light lists regularly.
So how often should you review them? As often as you have opportunities to practice.
Every time you have a new task, that's a chance to put your Green Lights into practice and solidify them as habits. If you've been adding your Green Lights to a separate list for each subject area, it should be easy to find the one you need for the task you're doing. Getting ready to write a paper? Pull out your "Composition Green Lights" list. Time for math homework? You need your "Algebra Green Lights" list.
Train yourself to refer to these lists as soon as you start working on each task. As soon as you pull that list out, you're really on your way to mastery. Congratulate yourself for taking that little step! That sense of accomplishment and satisfaction helps to lock in the habit.
As you read through the list, reaffirm each of those Green Light statements. Read it out loud. Imagine yourself taking that action. Again, try to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that you're developing a great new habit that's going to make you even more awesome than you already are.
Keep at it! Right now, you're taking the first steps on a journey that will take you from discouragement and a sense of inadequacy to a confident mastery of everything you study. It's ultimately a joyful process. When you see yourself racking up more and more successes as a student, you'll start to see yourself as someone who's good at learning and even start to enjoy uncovering more ways to improve. You'll feel motivated to improve rather than beaten down by a sense of failure.
You might even start to smile when you see red ink.
(By the way, let me know if you want to be invited when I open up enrollment for the Habit Lab workshop.)
What is the tone of your relationship with red ink?
Disgust? Resentment? Abject dread?
It shouldn't be surprising that most of us, especially students, have a few negative feelings about red ink. Apart from the natural associations with danger, we've learned throughout our lives that the color red stands for mistakes, punishment, and failure. If everything you ever did wrong was marked in green, you'd probably want to punch Kermit the Frog instead of Elmo.
When the hard-won fruit of your academic labors comes back to you from the teacher with red writing all over it, your initial reaction may be to feel a bit let down, defeated, and discouraged.
Maybe it won't come as a shock to read that this is an unproductive way for you to absorb negative feedback. You've probably heard a million times that the key to improving yourself is not to stop making mistakes, but to learn from the ones you do make. So all those marks on your work aren't a sign that you're failing. They mean that you're growing, right?
You don't grow automatically by making mistakes and having them pointed out to you. Even if you have a positive attitude towards the negative feedback you get on your work, that's still not enough to move you forward.
Every time you get feedback from an instructor, that means that a highly skilled person has spent time thinking specifically about how you personally can improve your skills and deepen your knowledge. That's great! But what are you going to do with that information?
There's one more step you need to take. It's something you should do every day, but most students never do it at all.
The Green Light Method
Before you toss that marked paper, or file it, or jam it into a crumpled heap under your bed (or whatever your organizational system is), there's a simple but absolutely essential thing you need to do with each piece of feedback on that paper: transform it into a positive, definite, repeatable action. This action is your "Green Light," a powerful tool to move yourself forward as a student.
Once you've identified this very specific action, don't just resolve to perform that action from now on. Resolutions are fine, but they don't work in the long run. Instead, start training yourself right now so that over time, this action will become automatic. In other words, make it a habit.
(By the way, if you're setting up your own Habit Lab, turning red ink into Green Lights is one great way to identify new habits that you need to develop.)
Here's my proven process for making sure your Green Lights don't just fade away:
Once you've turned a piece of feedback into a Green Light, you don't need it any more. You've digested the red ink and processed it into something useful. Unless you want to hang onto it for its sentimental value, you can probably throw that paper in the trash now.
If there's information on it that you may still need, keep it out of the way in a well-marked file folder in a drawer or box where you can find it later. But if you can, the best thing is usually to copy that information into a consolidated study guide (like my 90-Second Review sheet) and throw the original paper away.
Use the Green Light Method for every problem set, worksheet, quiz, test, paper, or project you get back, and soon you'll have a master list of the most important habits that you personally need to develop in order to do better in every subject.
Following this method takes a little more time than just adding the paper to your folder or drawer or the perilously teetering stack of homework in the back of your closet. But think of it an investment of time now to get huge returns later. If you actually do this every day for just a few weeks, you'll be amazed at how much more easily and quickly you do all your work in the future.
I'll write soon about exactly how to craft your Green Light statements to make them positive, definite, and repeatable. (Let me know if you want that information in your inbox.) But you don't have to wait for more information to start mastering this method. Try it out right now! Find some recent marked work and start processing it. If you're not sure what to do with a particular note or mark, leave a comment here and I'll try to help!
There are a million blog posts about the core study habits that will lead to success in school and life, and they're not hard to find. If you do a quick search, you'll find the same recommendations everywhere: things like using a planner to organize your time, creating and following a study plan, and active listening and reading. These recommendations are everywhere. The fact is, you already know most of them. You could probably sit down right now and write a list of twenty things you could do better.
So why aren't you already doing them?
When I ask students this question, I am not surprised to hear answers like:
If you're like most students, these answers are not only wrong; they're also preventing you from solving the problem. Will power and motivation are limited, unreliable resources. If you're depending on them to drive big changes in your study habits, you're going to be disappointed.
What's worse, every time you make a big resolution to improve yourself as a student, and then sooner or later run out of steam (motivation and will power), the disappointment you feel teaches you to look at yourself as a "bad student." Every failure makes you feel more like the kind of person who just can't improve. But that's not true! If you want to be a better student, then you already have it in you to get there. You just need to take a different path.
The best students in the world know that you don't achieve excellence by fighting against yourself. You have to want to do the things that lead to success. You have to make good decisions joyfully. Instead of forcing yourself to eat your academic vegetables, gradually learn to love them. Step by step, become the kind of person that simply wants to do all those things you know you "should" be doing.
How do you do that? To put it simply, stop making resolutions, and start making habits.
The Ultimate Habit
If you wanted to create an evil robot army, obviously the first step would be to design and build an evil robot that can build other evil robots. Why waste your time and energy personally building thousands of robots when you can make the process practically automatic? In much the same way, the most powerful thing you can do to develop better habits is to start by creating a habit that can create other habits.
Unfortunately, it's a difficult one to establish, because you may not even be sure whether you're doing it or not. It's easier to make a habit of something that you can picture yourself doing. You can pretty easily visualize things like eating healthier or exercising. But what does making a habit look like? What are the actual steps involved? If you don't answer those questions, you won't be able to see and celebrate your success.
Here's how I do it: for about twenty to thirty minutes after lunch each day, I grab my journal, and close myself into a quiet room I call my Habit Lab. This physical relocation is an extremely important part of the process. It means that the first step in the action of making habits is something I can visualize, measure, and celebrate. Inside the Lab, I check my progress on the habits I've been working on. I think about what changes I want to make in my life and what habits would support those. I make a specific, measurable plan for how I will establish these habits. Finally, I physically rehearse the plan.
The time I spend in the Lab is blocked off on my calendar every day. It's sacred ground, the one thing that I won't let go. If my house burned down tomorrow morning I would still hit the Habit Lab after lunch. I know that no matter what else happens, I'm actively becoming a more effective, virtuous, happy, and healthy person every day.
Inside the Habit Lab
Making a habit is more than just saying to yourself, "I'm going to do this thing now." And it's more than just doing the thing again and again. Those are both important aspects of the process, but neither of them in themselves guarantees that the action will become a habit. The key to creating a habit is to reward yourself repeatedly for the decision to take the action. To do that, you need to have a definite plan, so that you can observe and celebrate that decision.
Your Habit Lab is the place where you will create that plan.
You have to train yourself to study more effectively the way you would train a dog to roll over. That means that when you're trying to make an action into a habit, you have to rehearse the first step of the action many times a day, and reward yourself each time. To do that consistently, you need to plan ahead. The Habit Lab is your command center for planning the positive changes you're going to make. Keep coming back, and there's truly no limit to what you can accomplish.
Every day, whatever else you do, spend time: