Want to change study habits? You need to understand the Slight Edge.

The Slight Edge AcornLet’s talk about trees. In the book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, Mr Gladwell points out something interesting about the mightiest trees. He writes, “The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.” The above quote leads to some interesting insights. Many acorns could have grown up taller. The tallest might have come from a hardy acorn, but there is a good chance that many hardier acorns simply didn’t have all of the other important pieces fall into place for them. We all want to be successful. We all want to know the secret to make it happen. The honest truth is that smarts and DNA are not the most important ingredients to success, whether that be in school or in life. In fact, success can be achieved by some very small things, if done consistently. This is the Slight Edge.

Slight Edge defined

The Slight Edge is, first of all, a book written by Jeff Olson with John David Mann. The full title is, The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success and Happiness. It is a self-help book, and like many such books, it uses many pages and lots of testimonies to get across a simple message. That message is that each day we make small choices. When we consistently make good choices, we reap a harvest of good benefits. When we make poor choices, we reap a harvest of undesirable results.

The book also examines the idea that happiness is more a state of mind than the actual product of events. Of course events, conditions, and circumstances can bring us down. But, the book reminds us, we have the choice of whether or not to dwell on negative feelings. It deals realistically with the thought that emotions are difficult to manage, and can sometimes overwhelm even very sensible people. And, it points out that happiness is not attained by having money, dream jobs, or the love of your life.

Since we’re talking about acorns, in a nutshell, the Slight Edge is the ability to consistently and patiently do small things that are proactive, positive and beneficial. It is the ability to repeatedly make good choices, coupled with the habit of correcting poor ones. The book conveys that many people make many small, poor choices that add up to significant undesirable results.

Applying the Slight Edge

Teachers – particularly elementary teachers – already understand and apply the principles laid out in Slight Edge. Sports and fitness coaches use these principles when they promote several short practices in lieu of a once-a-week mega-practice. Music instructors use the principles of the Slight Edge by encouraging their students to practice fifteen to thirty minutes every day. Small and consistent are the two key factors for each of these professions.

The same principles apply to non-physical learning. Students who complete homework assignments on the day they are given, who break up longer assignments into segments, and who practice math and reading skills consistently over time, have better results than students who wait until the last minute and then engage in marathon study sessions.

Why is it called a Slight Edge?

One reason it is called a slight edge is the people who practice this principle are not necessarily any smarter or any luckier than anyone else in their peer group. They might come from the same neighborhood. They could have very similar backgrounds to others who do not practice this principle. It doesn’t need to be a big difference. But the effects are dramatic. Little, consistent gains over time will eventually put a practitioner of the Slight Edge on a much more successful path.

Difficulty with Putting the Slight Edge into Practice

Putting the Slight Edge into practice can be difficult because it isn’t showy, it isn’t flashy, and sometimes you have to give up something to do it. It takes a lot of time to develop a good habit. For example, if you are in the habit of coming home from school and immediately playing your favorite video game, that is a consistent habit. However, it will not do much for your math or reading skills.

To succeed academically, you might have to rearrange your priorities. To lose weight or to gain muscle, you might have to spend more time exercising and track what you eat. Becoming good at a musical instrument means practicing often. In every endeavor that you wish to be good at, you need to commit to giving up something that interferes with it. Playing a game is not a bad thing, unless it keeps you from succeeding at other things.

Giving up something you enjoy is not an easy thing to do. It can make you feel unhappy, temporarily. However, usually in life, the hard thing to do is the right thing to do. You know what the right thing to do is. It’s just a matter of forcing yourself to do the right thing so the right thing becomes habit.

Finding Happiness, Creating Rewards

Students who have locked themselves into behaviors that give them pleasure, but do not help them to develop physically or mentally, might struggle with developing good habits. Some students might be able to self-motivate. Others might need assistance from parents or teachers to make a change. But a steady commitment to developing healthy habits will work. There will be setbacks, but the only real trait that matters is persistences. If you do not give up, you will win.

So the question becomes how to create a good feeling about giving up or delaying something you love? The answer is that you are giving up something to gain something that you know will lead to much more happiness in the long term. It’s the difference between being a short-term thinker and a long-term thinker.

Incrementally Changing Behavior

Think small steps. Don’t try to change everything at once. Whether you are the student, or you are a parent or teacher who cares about the student, it is better to work on one or two small changes. Work on those small changes consistently, over time, and the other changes will follow. Create small rewards given consistently, over time, and habits change.

Researchers have found that it takes anywhere from 3 weeks to 9 months to change a habit. That’s a significant difference. The low end is likely for easy-to-change habits with little chance for returning to the old habit. The high-end is most likely for difficult-to-change habits that are plagued by the temptation to return to one’s old ways. Each person and each habit is different.

Be patient and keep the changes small. Insert a small amount of proactive behavior, and use a slightly lessened amount of the pleasurable activity as a reward for the achievement.

Over time, the desired habit – such as completing a math assignment, carrying out the trash before sitting down at the computer, or taking a brisk walk around the block – begins to create its own set of positive intrinsic rewards. These rewards might be teacher praise for completing the assignment, parental approval for chores completed or just a feeling of self-satisfaction. The results – slow though they might be in arriving – eventually become their own rewards.

As you notice people who seem to have it better, think about the habits they might have that are getting them there. Reflect on the acorn, and remember The Slight Edge.

209 thoughts on “Want to change study habits? You need to understand the Slight Edge.

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