Why Habits Trump Goals and Resolutions

Why did Steve Jobs always wear a black turtleneck?

the many black turtlenecks of Steve Jobs

And why does Mark Zuckerberg almost always wear a gray T-shirt?

Mark Zuckerberg

There’s a good reason: it’s not about fashion, and it has more to do with what you accomplish in 2015 than you might imagine…

As a new calendar year approaches, it’s natural to reflect on our lives and our performance as leaders, and think about what we might do differently in the coming year.

I’ve never been much for resolutions, which tend to become wishful thinking pretty quickly.

But I do believe in the power of setting goals…if it’s done right.

Why Goals Matter

Too often, we set goals that are merely arbitrary numbers, either plucked out of thin air or extrapolated from last year’s goals.

When we have no theory of action for a goal, it becomes a wish—inspiring, perhaps, but not of any practical use.

And even if there’s a good reason for picking a specific goal, setting the goal doesn’t magically give you the power to achieve it.

But a while back, I stumbled onto their real power: goals help us focus on the right order of magnitude.

If I want to get more exercise, I might plan to go on more hikes. But that’s pretty vague. If I set a specific weight or fitness goal, I’m much more likely to realize that going on a hike once a month isn’t going to cut it. I need to be working out several times a week, not once a month.

Goals help us identify the areas in which we need to set plans in motion, and they help us scale those plans to match the magnitude of the goal.

If I want to truly move my school forward, doing two classroom walkthroughs a month isn’t going to make much of a difference. But four a day will.

Set a goal, and you’ll still have a mountain to climb, but you’ll know how tall it is, how much you’ll have to train, and how long it’ll take.

Goals can make a difference. But what about everyone’s favorite New Year topic, resolutions?

Why Resolutions Don’t (Quite) Work

Resolutions aren’t a bad thing, but they fall a bit short. They’re helpful, but incomplete.

Sometimes we don’t change until we get fed up enough with the status quo that we can’t stand not changing. The moment we resolve to change, our perspective starts to shift.

But resolve is a pretty raw emotion. It can get you started, but it’s not going to do the work for you.

YOU have to do the work. Every day.

And to be consistent, you need habits.

Why Habits Trump Resolutions & Goals

Resolutions get you fired up enough to get started. Goals help you aim high enough. And habits help you do the work.

The Power of Habit

Last year, I read a fantastic book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit, and another great book called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister.

Both books helped me understand why the things I was good at were so easy, while they might be hard for others, and why I struggled with things that seemed easy for others.

It’s all about habit.

When you’re acting out of habit, you’re not using your willpower. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to decide. You don’t even have to have much energy, because habits let you work virtually on autopilot—not like a zombie, but like an airline pilot.

Think about an airline pilot, in a 747 on autopilot. The pilot doesn’t take a nap when autopilot is engaged; he or she is free to focus on other relevant matters, instead of manually adjusting the flight controls moment-by-moment.

We use habits for 40% or more of our daily activity—brushing your teeth usually isn’t too hard to remember to do consistently, even before coffee—but too rarely do we purposefully build habits around our key work.

The more you can get consistent about the majority of your work so it happens on autopilot, the more you can devote your attention to what most needs it—the exceptions to the rule, the tough situations, and the high-level decisions.

Steve Jobs wore black turtlenecks, and Zuck wears gray T-shirts, as part of a purposeful strategy of cognitive budgeting. They’re autopilot habits. If you’re running a multi-billion-dollar company, you don’t have time to distract yourself with wardrobe choices.

Every decision matters, and the more decisions you can encode into systems, the better.

I think of these systems for high performance this way:

  • Strategy is what allows us to do the right work and be effective
  • Tools allow us to put aspects of our work on autopilot and become more efficient
  • Habits are what enable us to be consistent—to execute with excellence, every day

Together, these three factors form what I call the High Performance Triangle:

It’s the basis for just about every strategy I teach for going from “I show up every day and do a great job” to “I’m performing at my best and maximizing my impact on student learning.”

It’s a subtle distinction but a big difference.

How To Form A Habit

Since my last PDF guide was so popular—more than 300 people have already downloaded my “Leadership, Simplified” PDF—I’m working on a new guide on how to form habits for high performance.

If you’ve already downloaded Leadership, Simplified, you’re on my list to get the habit guide. Stay tuned.

If not, click here, and I’ll send you Leadership, Simplified now, and the habit guide as soon as it’s ready.

→ Send me the habit guide as soon as it’s available ←

The Stress Equation

The Stress Equation

It’s no secret that school leadership can be stressful.

Kudos for having high standards and a great work ethic—that’s what your students need from you. But working hard and pushing yourself to do as much as humanly possible on behalf of kids can really start to weigh on you.

When you’re up answering emails at 11pm, even though you have to get up so early that you’ll be lucky to get six hours of sleep…

When you’re looking at that big, blank space on your calendar on Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon and thinking “Boy, I could really get some work done…”

When you’re emotionally exhausted from your own life and from the work you’ve been doing all day, and one more person comes in to see you, needing your care and concern…

…it can be stressful.

What is stress, and where does it come from?

Two Kinds of Stress

Psychologists distinguish between eustress—the positive pressure to get up in the morning and do something with your day—and distress—the more harmful, cortisol-stimulating stress that doesn’t do anyone any favors.

I think of eustress as simply motivation. When there’s a job to do, eustress gets you going and keeps you focused.

But when there’s far too much to do, and we start to get overwhelmed, we experience distress—or simply stress.

Which situation is the norm for most school leaders? Overwhelm. Too much to do, and not enough time. Too many challenges, and not enough research.

But stress isn’t a function of your school, or your role, or anything outside of yourself. Your stress level is something that you can control.

The Stress Equation

I believe it’s very simple: stress comes from the gap between the expectations we place on ourselves, and our ability to meet those expectations.

As an equation, it looks like this:

Stress = Expectations – Capacity

That’s it. Not “stress is proportional to the number of emails in your inbox” or “stress is proportional to the number of meetings on your calendar.”

Stress is about you: what you expect of yourself, and how well you’re currently able to meet those demands.

Why Zero Stress Isn’t Always Good

When the equation yields an answer around zero because your expectations and capacity are roughly equal, you’re experiencing eustress. You’ve got stuff to do, but you can handle it. Your self-efficacy is stoked, because you’re working hard and being successful.

But what if you have no stress because you have no expectations of yourself? We see this sometimes when people have given up—there’s work to do, but it no longer seems to matter. A drop in capacity can lead to a corresponding drop in expectations. Perhaps personal concerns are causing more than enough stress, so doing a great job ceases to matter. Not good.

If your expectations are far below what you’re capable of, your equation will yield a large negative value. That’s no good either—we need to be stimulated and challenged by our work, and our students deserve us to hold ourselves to high standards.

As humans, we need to do work that matters, and as high-performance instructional leaders, we need to work hard on behalf of students in order to create the opportunities they deserve in school and in life.

But that’s not the problem you face, is it?

The more common challenge in our profession is an excess of stress, because we have enormously high expectations of ourselves. Sometimes we need to balance the equation a bit.

Managing Expectations

How can we manage our stress by tweaking the minuend? (In case 2nd grade math was a while ago, that’s “expectations” in our stress equation.)

As a leader, you have multiple stakeholders, all of whom have expectations of you, whether stated or implicit. Those expectations don’t cause stress unless you internalize them.

And we need to be careful about internalizing all of everyone else’s expectations for us, because there’s no natural limit. No matter how hard you try to be a superprincipal, you’ll eventually burn yourself out if other people get to decide how heavy a burden you bear.

Hear me on this: work flows to the competent. If you’re great at what you do, people will give you more to do. They’ll ask more of you. They’ll expect better, because that’s what their experience with you has conditioned them to do.

At some point, you have to draw the line. You have to close the gate on expectations.

Castle Gate

The Castle Gate

I’m a bit of a castle geek. I love castles, love seeing them in movies, love reading about them, and love thinking about how they functioned during different points in history. And I think they can illustrate something important about expectations.

Castles have two fundamental components: walls and gates. The walls keep everything out, except for what the gates let in.

In a new leadership role, we tend to start with the gates open and see what comes to us. We don’t want to lock out an important constituency, need, or issue, so we let everything in.

But eventually, we reach our limit, and we shout, “Close the gates!”

If your staff sees that you’ve closed the gates and aren’t allowing anything in, you’re no longer serving as an effective leader. If you’re snapping at people about how busy you are, and flaking out when you should be following through, you’ve probably “closed the gates” in a desperate attempt to manage your stress.

But gates that stay closed all the time aren’t doing their job. A castle with gates that don’t open is a castle under siege.

The trick is to train the “guards” to let the right traffic in, and keep everything else out. How can we do that in our work as instructional leaders?

Your Leadership Agenda

If you ran a castle, you’d give your guards a set of instructions about whom to let in and whom to keep out of the castle.

As a school leader, this traffic isn’t people, but information and issues.

You can’t pay attention to everything, or you’re paying attention to nothing. You can’t focus on every issue, or you become completely unfocused.

Your best tool for determining what gets through the “gates” is your leadership agenda.

You probably have an agenda in your head, but I’d encourage you to start putting it into writing, ideally in a secure place like Evernote.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the main issues I need to be concerned with right now? In the next 90 days? In the next year? In three years? Consider doing a SWOT analysis by listing your school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (or challenges).
  • What hunches am I currently keeping in my head, unarticulated and untested? Commit them to writing, and seek more information to confirm or refute them.
  • Which staff members am I concerned about? (If you don’t have any concerns about health or substance abuse among particular staff members, for example, chances are you aren’t paying enough attention.) Encrypt this part of your leadership agenda, as it needs to be highly confidential.
  • What’s on my plate that I need to delegate? What’s keeping me from handing it off?
  • What actions can I take that will create the most leverage? How can I most directly and strategically bring about my priorities? (This should connect to your daily and weekly tasks)
  • What do I need to stop doing? What obligations will I not allow through the “gate” when they approach?

Your leadership agenda is your filter—your “gate” for determining what’s allowed to occupy your time and attention.

Be rigorous and clear about your leadership agenda, and you’ll be well on your way to effectively “gatekeeping” your workload and thus your stress.

What Is Capacity?

Once you’ve dealt with the expectations side, it’s time to look into your capacity as an instructional leader. What can you do to increase your capacity?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about different aspects of capacity:

  • Distributed leadership—who else is sharing the load with me?
  • Time management—am I scheduling my day to get the most important work done consistently?
  • Cognitive budget—am I avoiding unnecessary decision-making and fending off decision fatigue to preserve my willpower? (More on this below)
  • Tools and workflow—am I using effective strategies and technology to make my work manageable?

I have plenty of material on each of these topics, but I want to explain “cognitive budget” briefly…

What is “cognitive budget?” Essentially, it’s the idea that you can’t just make an infinite number of decisions every day, and you can’t perform an infinite number of cognitively demanding tasks without wearing yourself out.

(If you’ve ever tried to make a hiring decision after all-day teacher interviews, you know the feeling…)

There’s been some really interesting research in this field in recent years, which I’ve compiled into a guide with a set of reflective questions.

You can have this guide for free, but I want to gauge how much interest there is, so I know whether to keep creating guides like this.

To download my free guide “Leadership, Simplified: The School Leader’s Guide to Fending Off Decision Fatigue,” click here.

Click the image above to download.

See You At LearningForward in Nashville?

Are you headed to Nashville for the Learning Forward conference December 6-9? We sure are, and we’d love to meet you in person!

There are a few ways to find us during the event:


Justin, Jill, and the Instructional Leadership Challenge team

P.S.: To our 2,600+ participants, we say thank you for making a commitment to give more meaningful, authentic feedback to your teachers this school year. Your work positively impacts not only the teacher you support, but also the students you serve.

Making Instructional Leadership Our Business

Making il our business

Does your staff want you to be an instructional leader? Maybe, maybe not. They might appreciate the support, or they might see it as meddling.

Does society want you to? Does your district? Do policymakers?

On balance, we can probably conclude that no, judging from the nature of the principalship today, no one really wants school administrators to be instructional leaders.

But students need us to be, even if it’s hard. Even if there’s pressure to focus elsewhere.

Middle school principal “C.B.” writes:

A huge number of daily management issues (even more than a perceived lack of deep content knowledge) constantly make it difficult to focus on instructional leadership as a MS Principal.

I find I have to “force the issue” and make the entire curriculum my business. I still teach units, participate fully in curriculum activities, coach teachers, and lead professional development.

The longer I work in administration, the more I realize that the culture of a building flows directly from the principal. This actually scares me a little sometimes.

Instructional coaches and team leaders definitely help the cause; however, in the end the “buck stops” at my desk for moving our building forward with instructional leadership. —CB

Well said.

How do you involve yourself in instructional leadership, even when there’s pressure not to?

Whose Mentorship Are You Thankful For?

Thankful for mentor

How did you get to where you are today?

I became an administrator at a very young age. It wasn’t because I had any special skill set (that comes with experience), but because I had great opportunities.

I’m profoundly thankful for these opportunities, and especially for the mentorship that I received.

Mentorship is both an opportunity in itself, and a way we gain access to more opportunities.

Thank You, Dan

My mentor as an aspiring principal was Dan, who hired me straight out of my middle school classroom to be “head teacher” at his elementary school.

Once I was on board, I spent the next two years gaining experience, forming relationships at the district office, and generally getting my head around what it meant to be an administrator.

When the time came, I was selected as principal of Olympic View Elementary. I know this was partly due to what I brought to the table in the application and interview process, but I also know it was because I received great mentorship, which both prepared me to go after the job and paved the road for me.

It’s great to have someone in your corner, someone who is connecting you with the right people, recommending you for the right opportunities, and cheering you on.

Thank you, Dan.

Who Are You Thankful For?

Now, I’d like to ask you: Who are you thankful for? Who mentored you and helped you get to where you are today?

Mentors have a “pay it forward” mentality. They don’t ask for reciprocation. They don’t expect you to do them a favor back.

They simply expect that, when the time is right, you’ll mentor others and make the world a better place by creating more and better leaders.

Could you share a bit of your story? Whose mentorship helped you along in your career or life?

Leave a comment below and thank your mentor, and in the process, you’ll inspire others to pay it forward.

Recommended Resource:

If you enjoyed this post, check out my free video series The 5 Pathways to High-Performance Instructional Leadership

Responses from Twitter

“My main role as the principal will be an instructional and servant leader”

Lodree The Fernandina Beach News Leader reports that a new principal, Spencer Lodree, has been selected for Fernandina Beach High School in Florida.

At The Principal Center, we don’t normally share news of individual appointments, but Mr. Lodree’s vision for his role caught my eye:

“My main role as the principal will be an instructional and servant leader,” Lodree said in an email exchange following his appointment Nov. 13 by the Nassau County School Board.

“The principal should provide the necessary tools to the teachers and students to ensure academic excellence. The principal should be positive, enthusiastic and have their hand in the day to day activities of the school. A highly effective school leader is available to the teachers, students, parents and community members,” said Lodree, who came to FBHS from Andrew Jackson High School in Jacksonville in 2009 as the assistant principal of curriculum.
Fernandina Beach News Leader

Mr. Lodree uses one of my favorite verbs in describing the bottom-line responsibility of instructional leaders: ensure.

Congratulations on your new role, Mr. Lodree, and kudos for emphasizing servant leadership alongside instructional leadership.

Instructional Leadership for Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is of those instructional practices that everyone knows about, but that very few schools do well across the board.

As instructional leaders, what’s our responsibility? What we can do that will make the greatest difference?

For starters, we can make sure that our staff get high-quality professional development on formative assessment.

In too many schools, formative assessment is little more than a section of each lesson in the teacher’s guide. It’s not a daily reality, and it’s certainly not the high-leverage teaching tool it could be.

If formative assessment is merely a feature of commercially published curriculum, and not a living practice, it’s not going to improve learning.

How Formative Assessment Can Go Wrong

The key distinguishing feature of formative assessment is that it informs the teacher of what students understand and can do while instruction is still in progress, so the teacher can make adjustments in real time and help students master what they need to.

There are several ways we can miss the mark on formative assessment.

The first is to give assessments that are really summative, but are so small they can pass as formative.

A quiz at the end of the chapter may only have a few questions, and it may be quick to grade, but if you’re not planning to reteach or revisit anything after giving the assessment, it’s not formative.

Second, we can blow an opportunity for formative assessment by collecting the right information at the right time but failing to use it.

You can give the best assessment task in the world, at just the right time, and get great insights about what your students know and can do…but if you fail to actually change your plans in response, it’s not formative assessment.

But the third challenge is the most dangerous of all: that we’ll simply fail to take a serious approach to formative assessment at all.

Imagine if a school forgot about report cards, or transportation, or lunch, or giving interesting assignments. Imagine if we just left out a major chunk of what should be part of every student’s right to an education. We’d be caught, embarrassed, and shamed into fixing the situation immediately.

Yet somehow formative assessment slips through the cracks. Perhaps because it’s a bit technical (the public doesn’t really understand formative assessment, after all), or perhaps it’s by design ephemeral and doesn’t get reported higher up in the organization.

Either way, it’s our responsibility as leaders to ensure that formative assessment is a reality in our schools.

Beyond The Cowboy Approach

Where we have bright spots in formative assessment, they tend to be outliers. They tend to be individual teachers who have figured out what best informs their teaching and made a habit of it.

Only rarely are they entire teams or departments, and even more rarely are those bright spots entire schools. They’re usually lone teachers, working under their own initiative. They’re cowboys (though most of them are women :).

Fa cowboy blog

Cowboys are great when you need someone to ride out into the open range, alone or nearly so, and do what needs to be done.

But that’s not the approach our students need us to take.

Our students need us to do something much more prosaic, and much more useful: they need us to put consistent, reliable systems for formative assessment in place.

Common Practices & Common Assessments

As a leader, you can do three things to make formative assessment a reality in your school, starting in the next 30 days:

  • Schedule high-quality PD on formative assessment
  • Start to put consistent practices in place for formative assessment, so that everyone is starting to use formative assessment as part of their daily teaching practice
  • Have teams start to develop common formative assessments that they can give at key points during each unit and lesson. Start small, score early wins, and scale up from there.

We’ll have more on formative assessment in the coming months at The Principal Center. For now, check out my interview with Karen Sanzo on her book Formative Assessment Leadership.

November #ilchal Twitter Chat: Maintaining a Focus On Learning Around The Holidays

21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge

Our next Instructional Leadership Challenge Twitter chat is this Monday, November 24 at 9pm EST.

As December approaches, it’s critical to both recognize the realities of the season, and maintain a focus on learning. What can we do as instructional leaders to keep everyone focused on the mission, even while plenty of other things are going on?

For both students and staff, it’s easy for learning to take a back seat with so many December activities to think about. Join us for this Monday’s Twitter chat to share ideas for keeping everyone optimally focused—without being a grinch :).

Date: Monday, November 24, 2014

Time: 9:00 p.m. Eastern (6:00 p.m. Pacific/7pm Mountain/8pm Central)


Twitter, #ilchal

Topic: Maintaining a Focus on Learning

Click here for links to add to your calendar with one click


The #ilchal Twitter chat is hosted by Justin Baeder and Jillian Lubow, creators of the Instructional Leadership Challenge

Whether you’re a Twitter chat devotee or you’re just getting started on social media, this is a great chance to connect with your peers and have an honest, engaged discussion about your challenges and triumphs in pursuit of true instructional leadership.

See you there!

Future Dates

(Usually the Last Monday of each month):

  • Monday, December 29, 2014
  • Monday, January 26, 2015
  • Monday, February 23, 2015
  • Monday, March 30, 2015
  • Monday, April 27, 2015
  • Monday, May 25, 2015
  • Monday, June 29, 2015
  • About the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge

    The 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge has helped more than 2,600 school administrators in 34 countries become stronger instructional leaders.

    High Performance Email Workflow—Free Webinar Wednesday, November 19


    High-Performance Email Workflow: Email Is Broken Without These Tools I Use To Handle 1,621 Emails A Month

    This past Wednesday, I did a live webinar that we’re turning into premium content for the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network

    …but you can watch it free hereuntil Saturday night.

    We’ll explore:

    • Why email isn’t fundamentally broken…and what’s really the problem when we’re overloaded 
    • The missing tools that are crucial for handling email (yet work with any email system) 
    • How you can get through your inbox in a fraction of the time

    Watch Now

    By the way, registration for the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network is currently open, and we have a special startup class for our new cohort starting November 30, so make sure you join by the 29th. Details »

    ToDoist Workflow

    This video explains why ToDoist (or whichever digital task management app you choose) should be THE place you keep track of ALL of your work, and exactly how you can set it up to meet the demands of your job.

    Please enjoy this video as a free sample from our premium series Going Digital, part of the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network.