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That's a Nice Castle

Tempting though it might be to write a few blogs about some of the interesting historical monuments I have visited over the years, this week’s title is not a reference to a motte and bailey fortress that I chanced upon over the Easter break.  At this risk of being ‘fishist’, it is just the old gag about the short memory span of a goldfish, which is apparently only a few seconds.  As the creature circulates around a bowl adorned with a plastic castle that is supposed to make the otherwise sterile environment more interesting, it experiences the pleasure of surprise every time it sees the edifice again because it has quickly forgotten the last time it was noticed.

There is another joke about growing older that says that we inevitably turn our thoughts to the hereafter as we age, which usually manifests itself when we walk into a room, fail to remember why we are there and ask ourselves, ‘I wonder what I came in here after?’  I did not say it was a good joke and I am acutely aware of how horrible some of the psychological diseases associated with old age can be, but I have always thought it important to take what you are doing seriously but not to take yourself too seriously. 

While I am sure it is nothing to worry about, there have been a couple of recent occasions when I have forgotten to turn the light off after leaving a room.  Not only is this an expensive mistake to make with the current cost of electricity, but it is also a little disconcerting.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to leave one light on may be regarded as misfortune, but to leave two on looks like carelessness.

Usually, I have a reasonably effective system for remembering which books I have read and which I still need to read, but when I picked up Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’ a few months ago, though it looked familiar, I could not decide whether I had read it before or not.  The opening pages seemed to cover new material, but other sections seemed more familiar.  Many of the books I usually read cover similar areas and the authors sometimes reference one another, so it is entirely possible that the same example or anecdote could appear in different texts.  Malcolm Gladwell, Yuval Noah Harari and Tim Harford have much in common, but that is the reason I like them.

The story of the American football coach Tony Dungy, who used habits to make his players respond more quickly and thereby win more games, had a familiar ring to it, though I had not remembered how his son’s suicide was put forward as the unlikely final piece of the jigsaw to turn a nearly successful team that always choked at key moments into a team that kept calm under pressure to win the Superbowl – probably because it seems quite a leap of faith to link such a tragedy with such a breakthrough.

When I read the story of swimmer Michael Phelps winning another Olympic gold medal in world record time, despite his goggles filling with water when he dived into the pool, thereby effectively rendering him blind for the whole race, I was fairly sure I had been here before.  Again, this seems a rather unlikely tale, as he could not see the lanes or the cues for the turns, yet he was still able to win so convincingly.

It was when I got about halfway through, to a section about how Starbucks uses the acronym Latte (Listen to the customer; Acknowledge their complaint; Take action by solving the problem; Thank them; Explain why the problem occurred), that I knew for sure that I had read the book before, so this was the time to turn out the bedside light and write off the day as a waste of time.  A quick check through my notes the next day – why on earth I had not done this the day before remains beyond me – confirmed that the summer of 2020 was the approximate date of the previous reading, so just two and a bit years was enough for me to forget so much.

But it was not an entirely wasted day, because it made me reflect on what I remember and what I do not, on the power of writing things down and on how we notice different things even though we are in effect having the same experience.  For example, I did not make a note about a section on willpower the first time around, but this time it caught my eye.  Maybe that is because it is one of those points my family are keen to tell me when I share with them – which, for obvious reasons, I do less and less these days – that is in fact blindingly obvious and does not require further discussion.

As we head to the public exam season, Duhigg’s point seems worthy of note, not least when he highlights that pupils who exert high levels of willpower have been found by studies to be more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission to more selective universities.  They have fewer absences, spend less time online and more hours on homework.  Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperform their more impulsive peers on every academic performance variable, according to the researchers, and self-discipline predicts academic performance more robustly than IQ.  Self-discipline also predicts which pupils will improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ does not.  In summary, self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.

The author also points out that when people are asked to do something, it requires self-control.  If they think they are doing it for personal reasons – if they feel like it is a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else – it is much less taxing.  On the other hand, if they feel like they have no autonomy, if they are just following instructions, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.  Simply giving employees a sense of agency – a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.

This autonomy is harder to deliver in schools because it is not easy to find areas of the curriculum where pupils can make choices about what they learn.  However, this does not mean we cannot try to find ways to make studying more rewarding, and the best way to strengthen willpower and give learners a leg up, research indicates, is to make it into a habit.  As Angela Duckworth, the author of ‘Grit’ – another book with a similar premise – puts it, ‘Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control are not working hard, but that is because they have made it automatic.  Their willpower occurs to them without them having to think about it.’  Knowing this will hopefully help everyone who needs to keep their focus sharp, whatever age they may be and whatever challenges they may be facing.

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