Brain Based

How to Win the Attentional Game of Tug-of-War

It’s a deafening roar: 35,000 screaming spectators have waited all year for this event. No, it is not baseball or football. It is an epic, old-school tug-of-war across the 2nd longest river in the U.S.A. Every August, a half-mile of rope (9 football fields) is stretched across the Mississippi River, between Illinois and Iowa. Even if you’ve never actually “played” or watched a tug-of-war, you likely can guess how it works. Illinois residents tug on one side of the rope as Iowa residents do the same from the other side of the river. For one weekend, teams work to pull the other team off balance and knock them off their feet. The reward? Aside from bragging rights, there’s a beautiful Alabaster Eagle trophy, and it’s a great fundraiser.

This year, the epic match of tug-of-war is in your brain between focus and distraction. Perhaps it has never been more challenging, both for you and your students. You may have felt “pulled off-balance” more than usual. The good news is that… Read more

Teaching from home

Attentional Mastery for the (Distracted) Teach-from-Home Educator

Now that you’re working more from home, do you find yourself distracted or scattered? Are you struggling to focus and finish a task?

Your brain’s attentional system is being exposed to new challenges, both visible (looming house projects) and invisible (a global virus). With the right tools, you CAN foster skills to lock-in your attention and be highly productive. Here is what every educator working from home needs to know… Read more

Four Simple Steps to New Year’s Resolution Success

Is it just me, or does it seem like fewer people are setting New Year’s Resolutions these days? If so, you wouldn’t be surprised; the vast majority of them remain unachieved.

Yes, there is always value in doing a life inventory and making a few course corrections. But this tradition needs an upgrade – and you’re about to discover the missing tools to successfully achieve a new, upgraded YOU.

The Research

This post unfolds the secrets to creating and KEEPING new habits. These tools work whether you’re interested in establishing a new personal habit for yourself (eat more greens), or a regular practice in your classroom (always greet students at the door). Check out this valuable research!

The C-B-R System

Here is the simple algorithm that actually works to create new habits:”Cue-Behavior-Reward” (Lally & Gardner, 2013). Efforts to change behavior (eat healthier) work best with a cue (fruit basket on counter) up front, and then a reward (skinnier waistline or weekend movie) after the behavior is implemented.

The secret to upgrading your resolutions is to focus on the system you use rather than the ultimate end point. Goals are great (lose 10 lbs), but most would agree that new, sustainable habits (maintain a healthy weight of xx lbs) are even better. Building a system for enduring change will yield better long-term results than finite goals or “resolutions” (Wood, Quinn, & Kashy, 2002).

You likely care deeply about the upgrades you are trying to make. But the way you frame it in your mind and words could be the game-changing shift that leads to actual results. The brain and body pay attention to things it finds relevant and meaningful (Oudiette, Antony, Creery, & Paller, 2013). Why is that important to remember when starting a new habit? You’re about to find out.

4 Steps to Upgrade your System (for Better Motivation)

If staying motivated to keep yourself (or your students) going with a new habit is a struggle for you, these 4 steps will guide your creation of new habits that match up with the brain’s natural system for habit formation.

STEP #1: Craft your IDENTITY

Which do you think your brain would deem more meaningful: Lose 25 lbs. OR Regain my physical health so I can run around with my kids (… by losing 25 lbs.)? Tapping into greater levels of personal relevance connects to one of your core biological drivers: your identity. An IDENTITY-driven habit (“I AM a healthy person”) carries more motivational weight than a PROCESS-driven goal (“I GO to the gym 5 days a week.”)

When an action feels in alignment with your identity, even a difficult task feels more meaningful and important (Oyserman & Destin, 2010). In contrast, when an action feels out of alignment from your identity, that same difficult task is interpreted as being pointless or “not for people like me.” They key takeaway is this: design goals and habits that “fit” the identity you hope to create.

STEP #2: Build in CUES

The cue acts as a trigger to initiate the habit. Without a cue, you are prone to forgetting about the new behavior you wish to habituate and sticking with your usual routines. From a brain perspective, the cue plays a vital role in triggering the brain that it’s time for _________ (insert new habit). The stratium, a small area of the basal ganglia, contains neurons that fire at rapid speeds when it senses you are initiating a habit sequence (Martiros, Burgess, & Graybiel, 2018). In other words, the cue acts like a trigger in the brain to start the new behavior.

The cue could be a post-it note on your bathroom mirror triggering you to say your positive affirmation for the morning. Or it could be your gym bag that gets left in front of the door so you literally trip over it if you don’t pick it up. Whatever the cue, it jumpstarts a neurological process that is associated with the new habit being formed.

STEP #3: Make the BEHAVIOR Challenging

Some find it counterintuitive to believe that people are more likely to achieve goals that are challenging. But it is true (Meece, Anderman, & Anderman, 2006). Here is why: you are more likely to care and work towards a goal that is a bit out of reach. Without challenge a new goal or habit feels too easy, and effort seems unnecessary. Therefore, less effort is often given to these goals.

But it’s not as simple as “set challenging goals.” More challenge introduces more risk for failure and disappointment. Too much challenge can actually be demotivating. That’s why support systems (a clearly outlined path, access to resources, mentoring, etc.) must be in place or likelihood of failure skyrockets. Similarly, performance goals that focus on how you (or your students) are doing compared to others are less effective than mastery goals that focus on individual progress toward mastery (Travers, Morisano, & Locke, 2015).

An often-overlooked characteristic of one who is successful with challenging goals is self-efficacy. You (and your students) are more likely to achieve goals when you believe you have the competence to succeed (Gao, Xiang, Lochbaum, & Guan, 2013). Specific strategies to build the needed self-efficacy are below. 

Once you get going, it is critical to stay consistent. Missing one day can be excusable, but don’t let yourself miss two days in a row. If you don’t feel well enough to pump iron at the gym, at least take one lap around the block to stay consistent with your new exercise habit.

STEP #4: REWARD the brain

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter most strongly associated with motivation and effort. Not only is it released when you successfully accomplish a task, it is also released in anticipation of that success (Lloyd & Dayan, 2015). Why is that important? Because, you don’t have to wait until you reach the ultimate finish line before dopamine is released into your system. If your new habit system is set-up to celebrate small successes (not just your big lofty goal), you could essentially GROW through 2020 with a constant drip system of dopamine feeding your motivation.

Here is the catch with dopamine: The brain quickly desensitizes to it, as evidenced by the drug addict who craves a bigger dose or stronger drug. Dopamine’s strength (and thus its power to drive motivation) is determined by the frequency, and the (presumed) predictability of, its release. And it often comes down to who is in charge of the reward.

Notice the difference between the following reward systems:

  1. Fixed Reward System: If you go to the gym every day, then on Friday you give yourself a _______ (reward).
  2. Intermittent Reward System: You have asked a friend, colleague, AND employee at the gym to randomly ask you, any time they see you, “Hey, did you work out yesterday?” If you can give an honest yes, then mark it down or reward yourself.

Why have three people? If one or two forgets, you still have a backup plan.

You might be able to recognize that rewards given intermittently would reinforce behaviors far more effectively. If you don’t know when the reward is coming, you continue the behavior just in case. With a fixed reward system, the predictability is what often dampens the drive to continue.

That’s one reason why the dopamine/success pathway typically only works a couple times. Then a system where the process becomes the reward, not the result, is what is needed. Dopamine quickly becomes about the anticipation. If you build the right kind of system, just looking at your workout shoes sitting by the door can trigger the release of dopamine. How? Keep reading.

Practical Application

Following the four steps above, you are equipped to make a few upgrades to your habit-making system. Here are a few specific strategies to help you stay on track with your new Cue-Behavior-Reward system.

UPGRADE #1: CRAFT YOUR IDENTITY (for more relevance)

Tap into your brain’s relevance system by crafting your new habits to directly support the IDENTITY you want to shape. Remember, identity-focused goals (“I AM a present parent”) get preference over process (“I PUT my phone in another room during family time”) or outcome-focused goals (“Build stronger relationships with my kids”). Here are a few suggestions to help you stay focused on the new IDENTITY you’re working to create:

  • Create a daily mantra that incorporates the new identity you are forming, and say it out loud every day. Phrases that start with “I AM …” are a great start for identity-based habits. “I AM an organized person.” “I AM a culturally responsive teacher.” What if those words are not true about you … yet? Say them anyway. Your brain will begin to believe you. There is strong evidence supporting the use of positive self-talk to increase motivation (Geurts, 2018).
  • Leave visual reminders around your classroom or home of what worthwhile thing is waiting for you on the other side of this process. Similar to a vision board, these pictures can boost your motivation as you are reminded of why your goal is so meaningful to you.


Jumpstart your new habits with strong cues that you simply cannot ignore. The key is to make the cue so visible there is no way to miss it. Here are a couple fool-proof tools to cue your brain to jump into a new habit cycle.

  • Place a reminder object in a place where it must be interacted with (ie. Put your journal on top of your pillow to keep up a daily journaling habit; place your yoga mat in your walking path so you step right on it in the mornings).
  • Set a daily/weekly alarm to remind you to act on your new habit (ie. Write a positive email to a parent; send a “gratitude text” to a friend).

UPGRADE #3: SET STRETCH GOALS (for more challenge)

A general rule of thumb is to set a 5% stretch goal. In other words, consider what will be a challenge for you, and then stretch your goal 5% beyond that. Want to a run a mile without stopping? Add an extra 5% and it becomes a mile and an 80-meter bonus “stretch”.

Remember, challenging goals work when there is support systems in place, so make a plan, gather resources, and find a mentor to cheer you on. Here are a few habits we’ve found to be challenging and worthy of our time and effort:

  • Go 24 hours without complaining. Don’t think it will be a challenge? Try it out.
  • Make one positive contact with a parent, family member, or colleague every day (email or phone call).

Whatever the challenge may be, remember to couple it with efficacy-building strategies of: consistent feedback, modeling, and regular doses of success (Gao, Xiang, Lochbaum, & Guan, 2013).   

UPGRADE #4: SET MICRO GOALS (Reward your Brain!)

Want that constant drip of dopamine? Instead of focusing on that huge goal you’re aiming for, break it down into smaller micro goals to get more frequent boosts of dopamine. It’ll keep you going as you build a new you. Start with LOTS of rewards for a week or two, then adjust your system to feed you intermittent rewards.

  • Is this the year you actually want to start that blog you’ve been talking about? Start by writing just one paragraph and then take a victory lap around your laptop. Repeat tomorrow.
  • Is your garage clutter about to push you over the edge?

Set a timer for 15 minutes and see what you can get done. (Then have a dance party in the small space you have created!)

For some, the success of accomplishment isn’t enough (dopamine) to keep them going. If that’s true for you, build in another reward that IS meaningful to you. Plan to treat yourself to something enjoyable when you reach the first, small milestone (1 lb. lost, 1 room purged, 1stattempt with a new teaching tech tool), and every milestone thereafter. It could be a night off from grading, a night out with a friend, or a 5-minute foot rub from a loving partner.

As you reflect on your hopes for 2020, which brain tool above will give you the needed boost of motivation to keep you (or your students) moving toward a new and improved you? Identify it, and then put systems in place to carry you and your teaching toward your desired upgrade. You and your students are worth it!

PS – All of this also applies to any new habit you’d like your students to create. Work with them to design and implement a C-B-R system for better study habits, skill-building, or whatever upgrades they need. 

Gao, Z., Xiang, P., Lochbaum, M., & Guan, J. (2013). The impact of achievement goals on cardiorespiratory fitness: does self-efficacy make a difference?. Research quarterly for exercise and sport84(3), 313-322.
Geurts, B. (2018). Making sense of self-talk. Review of philosophy and psychology9(2), 271-285.
Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review7(sup1), S137-S158.
Lloyd, K., & Dayan, P. (2015). Tamping ramping: algorithmic, implementational, and computationalexplanations of phasic dopamine signals in the accumbens. PLoS computational biology11(12), e1004622.
Martiros, N., Burgess, A. A., & Graybiel, A. M. (2018). Inversely active striatal projection neurons and interneurons selectively delimit useful behavioral sequences. Current Biology28(4), 560-573.
Meece, J. L., Anderman, E. M., & Anderman, L. H. (2006). Classroom Goal Structure, Student Motivation, and Academic Achievement. Annual Review of Psychology, 57(1), 487-503.
Oudiette, D., Antony, J. W., Creery, J. D., & Paller, K. A. (2013). The Role of Memory Reactivation during Wakefulness and Sleep in Determining Which Memories Endure. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(15), 6672-6678.
Oyserman, D., & Destin, M. (2010). Identity-based motivation: Implications for intervention. The Counseling Psychologist38(7), 1001-1043.
Travers, C., Morisano, D., & Locke, E. (2015). Self-reflection, growth goals, and academic outcomes: A qualitative study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(2), 224-241.
Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of personality and social psychology83(6), 1281.

Fool-Proof Strategies to Jump Start any New Habit

It’s Time to Do a Simple Experiment at Work;

Have you ever tried to start a new exercise routine, only to quit a week or two into it? Or had the best of intentions to give students more frequent and specific feedback, but never got it jumpstarted? Believe it or not – even the best of intentions and motivation only get you so far … and in many cases it’s not very far.

The key to successful habit formation is NOT you. Yes – you read that right! Prepare to be SHOCKED to learn what you are missing and how EASY it can be to become a pro at starting and breaking habits. Your life is about to get really good, really fast. Read more

Do You Carry This Around with You? If So, Please Stop!

What if I told you there are things you might be carrying around with you daily that are toxic? At your school, you may have staff that are still mad at a leader who left the school years ago. We all know someone who is carrying “these” – sometimes for a student, colleague, or family member. In fact, who doesn’t?

But what if you knew the real COSTS of this dangerous “brain baggage”? And what if you knew HOW to drop “it” and get on with your life? Interested? Now THAT’S a New Year’s resolution worth making and keeping! Let’s learn how “this whole thing” works…and prepare for a surprise! Read more

Alzheimer’s Disease

6 Ways to Protect Yourself (and Loved Ones) from Alzheimer’s Disease

How to Keep the Cobwebs Away and Prevent Alzheimer’s

What would it be like to no longer recognize the face of a loved one? To no longer have memories of that magical vacation you spent years saving for? To not remember your wedding day, your children, or even what you did yesterday?

I don’t know what that would be like, and I don’t want to find out. I am assuming you don’t either.

Scientists are working frantically to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but for now it seems like YOU are the best solution for protecting you and your family from suffering the loneliest death imaginable. Here is what YOU can do …

DISCLAIMER: Before I offer some suggestions (based on science), I am required by law to make a disclaimer: “The following comments are not meant to diagnose or treat any disease, nor have they been approved by the FDA.” Read more

Brain Based Testing

Uncovering the Secret World of High Test Performers

(and how your students can do better)

Your student’s brains seem wired to forget much of what they learn, especially at test time. This might seem a bit discouraging to you, but it is true, and it is actually a good thing. Yes, forgetting can be a good thing … but NOT when you want students to show what they know.

Keep reading and you’ll learn 5 brain-smart strategies you can start using TODAY to help your students retain the important learning anytime you want them to show what they know. The first thing to know is… Read more

7 Changes You Can Make to Save Your Life from Cancer

You or a family member may be concerned about the “big two” killers (cancer and Alzheimer’s.) This month we focus on cancer and the July issue will be on Alzheimer’s.

By the way, every year these suggestions get so many rave reviews that they are re-sent, forwarded and “re-gifted.”  Feel free to do so yourself.

DISCLAIMER: Before I begin any comments about health, I am required by law to make a disclaimer: “The following comments are not meant to diagnose or treat any disease, nor have they been approved by the FDA.” (By the way, an oncologist would have to make the same disclaimer.)

The Research

Many have heard that there is some randomness to getting cancer. A study got quite a bit of publicity when it said the majority of cancer is just “bad luck” (Tomasetti & Vogelstein, 2015). But a careful reading of the study showed they used a very select few tissue samples (31), and it excludes the most common cancers like breast and prostate cancers. The study is too small to generalize their data.

Many highly renowned researchers have already denounced the study. Do not buy into this; it was not generalizable science. Truthfully, there is some bad luck, but not much. The majority of all cancers are preventable. In fact, the heritability of most cancers is between 5 and 10%. That’s why you want to focus on environmental factors.

If you think the “heritability” percentages are WAY too low, consider this… Read more

… about your emotional weight

How much “weight” do you carry every day?

Isn’t work challenging enough without adding weight?

You may be thinking, “What kind of nerve does Eric have, talking about my weight?”

Actually, this post is NOT about the extra pounds on your frame. (After all, you likely already know that every 10 pounds of weight loss equals 40 pounds of added pressure OFF your knees. Put it differently, for each pound of body weight lost, there is a 4-pound reduction in knee joint stress among overweight and obese people with osteoarthritis of the knee.) Read more