Reading, exercising, and brushing your teeth

We all find some activities easy and fun, while other activities are difficult and unpleasant.

Some people, for example, love to read, but hate to exercise.

Other people love to exercise but hate reading.

If you never exercise, your muscles are undeveloped; you become physically unfit and, eventually, unhealthy.

If you never read, your intellect is undeveloped.

People who hate to exercise need to find a way of staying fit that is at least tolerable, and then they need to exercise regularly. People who hate to read need to make the time to read at least a little bit every day, to develop their knowledge and understanding.

You can develop the habit of reading daily, or exercising regularly, or doing anything else that you know you should do, even though you are not naturally inclined to do it.

As an example of how to do this, consider . . . brushing your teeth. At first, you had no teeth. Then you got teeth, but you were too little to brush them yourself, so some caring adult (let’s say your mum, but it could have been your dad, or whoever else was looking after you)—some caring adult brushed your teeth for you. After a while, your mum (or whoever) got tired of doing this and said, “You are old enough to brush your own teeth. Here, hold the toothbrush.” And she taught you how to brush your own teeth. A bit later, you became more independent. “Goodnight, Mum!” “Did you brush your teeth?” “Aw, Mum!” “Get in there right now and brush your teeth!” After a few years of this, you did not need any reminders. You acquired, through simple repetition, the habit of brushing your teeth. And now you would never go to sleep without brushing your teeth.

If you can acquire the habit of brushing your teeth, you can acquire the habit of doing anything else that you know is good for you. At first you may need reminders—your phone, or a caring adult, or a friend. Eventually, you will need no reminders. And your life will be better!

Practice, practice, practice!

Some students think that certain assignments are important, while others are not important—or that some assignments are more important than others.

This is a dangerous error.

If you only read what is assigned to you, you will never read enough to become a really good reader, and to acquire the background knowledge you need.

If you only write what is assigned to you—or even worse, only what the teacher marks in detail—you will never write enough to become a good writer.

Imagine a basketball player who never touches a basketball except during team practices and games. That player will never learn to play basketball well. Good players become good by spending hours and hours and hours in the gym, shooting lay-ups, shooting free-throws, shooting jump shots. No coach is there pointing out errors or praising progress.

Or consider the piano student. Once a week, during lessons, the teacher points out what the student is doing well, and where the student needs to improve. In between lessons, the student must practice, practice, practice, practice. No one is there to say, “That’s good!” or “No, no, your left-hand fingering is wrong!”

Getting better is all about the repetitions.

If it were possible for a superhuman English teacher to mark in detail every piece of writing you do, it would be a waste of time for the teacher, and for you! Why? Because we continue making the same mistakes, for a long time. Mistakes arise out of bad habits, and bad habits can be corrected only through practice, practice, practice!

Consider the basketball player. During a team practice, the coach sees that the player’s elbow is stuck out away from the body on jump shots. “Pull your elbow in! Your forearm should be vertical!” says the coach. But the player must shoot hundreds or thousands of jump shots to train the brain and the body to keep the elbow in and the forearm vertical. It would be useless for a coach to stand behind the player for hours crying out, “Elbow out! ”That’s better!” No, it’s out again!” The player knows what the problem is. Correcting it takes practice, practice, practice!

Those hours of practice begin to pay off, eventually, during team practices and games. But without the hours of practice, unobserved and ungraded, the player—and the student—will never make much progress.

Who will be a better player: the one who never touches a ball except during team practices and games, or the one who isn’t even on the team but spends hundreds of hours in the gym practicing?

Who will be a better writer: the student who never writes except on graded assignments and exams, or the one who writes every day, privately, and is not even enrolled in the course?

The answer is the same in both cases.

Better than either of these, however, will be the player who practices for hours alone, gets good coaching during team practices, and then puts it all together during games. Better than either will be the student who reads and writes voraciously outside of class, gets good instruction in class, and then puts it all together on graded assignments and exams.

That’s why every assignment is important.

How students can take advantage of the pandemic

Remember the time before the pandemic, when your day was filled with classes? “I wonder what I should do for the next hour?” was a question you rarely needed to ask. And the adults around you were constantly nagging you about your schedule and your deadlines.

“Wake up, you’ll be late to school.”

“Hurry up there, class starts in two minutes!”

“How’s that essay coming along?”

“Where’s your homework? It was due yesterday!”

No more. Now you have just as much work to do, or even more, but almost no schedule apart from an occasional online meeting. How to start? How to organize? Without a fixed schedule for each day and constant reminders from adults, many  students are struggling to keep their learning on track during the pandemic.

Here’s the good news: you have an opportunity to develop time management skills and self-discipline that will really pay off when you get to university. First-year university students quickly discover that no one will remind them of due dates, or wake them up in the morning, or tell them it’s after midnight and they should go to sleep. Suddenly, just to maintain passing grades they need skills and habits they never needed in high school.

The unstructured days of distance-learning are more like being a university student. Seize the opportunity to develop work routines that keep you on track and up to date. Learn how to use a digital calendar, digital reminders, and to-do lists. Develop the habit of spending the last half-hour or so of each work day preparing for the next day’s work, making sure you will be ready. You might find a task-manager app like Notion useful.

You can also use independent reading and vocabulary study to help organize your work time in a healthy way. We have all been told that it’s unhealthy and counterproductive to sit for long stretches of time without a break. But if we take breaks every 20-40 minutes, that’s a lot of breaks to fill up with . . . what? Exercise, yes. Snacks, yes. And then . . . what? Here are a couple of suggestions.

1. Use break times for independent reading.

Background knowledge is the #1 factor in school success, and reading is the #1 way to acquire background knowledge. It also develops your general-level vocabulary, your reading comprehension, and your reading speed. Take advantage of the pandemic by reading a book of your choice for 15-30 minutes a day. You can build this reading time into your work habits. Take a break from other work, stretch out comfortably, and read for 15 minutes. Physical books are better than digital, and will give your eyes a needed rest from looking at screens.

2. Use break times to develop your higher-level vocabulary.

Take advantage of the pandemic, too, by building your higher-level vocabulary with Freerice, a free vocabulary web site and phone app from the UN’s World Food Program. I recommend the phone app. You should spend 10 minutes daily on Freerice: it’s fun, easy, and addictive. The program evaluates your responses and adjusts the level of vocabulary automatically. It recycles both right and wrong answers until you answer correctly several times, and then moves you up to new words. And, with every correct answer, Freerice’s corporate sponsors donate the equivalent of 10 grains of rice that will help to feed hungry people all over the world. By using Freerice daily you will increase your store of higher-level vocabulary (the words that you don’t normally encounter when reading novels, etc.) and help to make the world a little bit better at the same time. You can weave Freerice into your work habits very easily. Take a break every 30-40 minutes, walk around, and open up Freerice on your phone. If you do this just two or three times a day you will easily spend at least 10 minutes daily building your vocabulary.

Adding these independent reading breaks and Freerice breaks into your daily routines will help to organize your time, will keep you healthier, and will develop essential skills that you will find valuable your whole life.

Hand in work on time [book excerpt]

First, be organized about writing down assignments and due dates—use an agenda!

Second, don’t procrastinate.

Third, if you encounter a problem that may cause your work to be late, talk to the teacher before the assignment is due.

Years ago, I was a summer camp counselor. Before the campers arrived, all the counselors had a few days to prepare. On our first day, we sat in a big circle on the lawn in front of the main building. There were about fifty of us, and two-thirds of us were there for the first time. The Director, a lady who was almost seventy years old, went around the circle, without notes, and introduced each one us to the others. She knew our names, where we were from, and where we were going to school.

When she had finished introducing all fifty of us, she said, “Each of you will be responsible for about a dozen campers. We have a folder for each camper, with their photos, and when they get off the bus on Wednesday I expect you to greet each one of your campers by name.”

Until then, I had convinced myself that I was no good at remembering people’s names. My camp director convinced me otherwise. I learned that remembering names was a simple matter of desire, determination, and effort. We can all do it, if we really want to.

Being on time with homework assignments is also a simple matter of desire, determination, and effort. If you think it is really important—and it is—you will make the effort that’s required.

If you hand in your work late (more than very occasionally), you are sending a very unfortunate message to your teachers: you are telling them that you don’t really care—NOT the message you want to send!

At first, if you have developed bad habits in this area, finishing work on time will require focus and concentration. As time passes, however, working on time will become habitual, an almost automatic reflex, and the effort required will decrease considerably.

Use an agenda. Enlist the help of your teachers, your Advisor or Homeroom Teacher, and your parents. Use the Homework Tracker, which you can download from my website. Do everything you can to develop the crucially important habit of finishing your work on time!

Where to buy “Good Habits, Good Students”

At the moment, it’s available on the U.S. Amazon site, here—

“Good Habits” on

—and on the Canadian Amazon site, here:

“Good Habits” on

Alternatively, you can order it from your local bookshop using these ISBN numbers:

ISBN-10: 1595265740
ISBN-13: 978-1595265746

If you have trouble finding a copy, drop me a comment below.

Skills and habits

Sometime in the 1990s I was walking in Portland, Oregon with a friend when he saw a computer store and said, “Do you mind if we stop here for a moment?”

We walked in. The young man behind the counter looked at me and said, “Mr. MacKnight!” I had no idea who he was.

“Guilty as charged,” I replied. “Who are you?”

He told me his name, and it rang a bell—one of my students from several years before. We began chatting, and I began remembering more about him. He had been my student for just one year, in Grade 12. Finally I asked him what he had learned in that class. He paused, looked puzzled, and then brightened. 

A lot is two words!” he cried triumphantly. 

That may seem very little to remember from a high school English class, but if someone asked me what I remember learning in high school, I would be hard-pressed to recall anything at all.

So what does stay with us after all those books and facts and lessons are forgotten?

Skills and habits. They remain for years. Both of them are formed by repetition over a long period of time. 

In one sense, repetition is easy. No genius or special aptitude is required. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and sooner or later your skills improve. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and eventually you will have formed a fixed habit. 

Do you want to improve your reading skills? Read every day!

Do you want to improve your writing skills? Write every day!

Do you want to form the good habit of checking for assignments and deadlines every day? Then set a reminder, and check every day!

It’s easy.

Except that it’s not. 

If you love playing basketball, then you enjoy the daily repetition of shooting and dribbling. If you love reading, then reading every day is a pleasure, not a chore. 

When the skills and habits you desire involve activities that are not immediately enjoyable, however, repeating them every day is something you dread. You make excuses. You develop, through repetition, the habit of procrastinating.

To practice those “unpleasant” skills and habits, therefore, you need help. Maybe an electronic reminder will be enough. Maybe teaming up with a friend will do it. Maybe asking a parent for daily reminders will work for you. When you don’t enjoy what you know is good for you, when motivation is too often overcome by laziness, you will need to find support of some kind.

The good news? Once you do that, it’s a simple matter of repetition. And that’s easy.

“If You Want to Get Better at Something, Ask Yourself These Two Questions”

Peter Bergman’s short piece in the Harvard Business Review nicely explains the idea that improvement requires a certain amount of discomfort and frustration.

“I have two questions for you,” I said. “One: Do you want to do better?”

If the answer is “no,” then to attempt to coach would be a fool’s errand (a mistake I have made in the past).

“Yeah” he said.

“Here’s my second question: Are you willing to feel the discomfort of putting in more effort and trying new things that will feel weird and different and won’t work right away?”

You can read the entire article here.

On “being the best person you can be”

The trick is to stop worrying about the future, which is so full of unknowns.

Be the best person you can be right now, today, this hour, this minute. If you do that—if you succeed at that only some of the time—you will find yourself equipped to deal with whatever life brings you, and to create the future you have imagined when the opportunities arise.

At certain moments, however, “being the best person you can be” means being someone who is exhausted, run down, discouraged, out of ideas, completely lacking enthusiasm or inspiration.

At such moments, you need to stop and take care of yourself.

Update: where to buy the book

Good Habits, Good Students was originally published by Llumina Press, but they are going out of business and I have moved the book over to Amazon (under the Aeon Publishing, Inc. imprint), so that’s now the best place to buy. Here is the link to use:

Good Habits, Good Students on Amazon

You’ll see that there are only two reader’s reviews of the book, but they are both 5 stars and from teachers who strongly recommend Good Habits, which certainly pleases me.

If  you prefer to order from your local bookshop, the ISBN is


Christmas is coming, so if you have a student in your family or among your friends, consider Good Habits, Good Students. Definitely better than socks or jammies!

Believing in yourself

Many uninspired students lack confidence. Somehow they have come to believe that they are not good enough to succeed. “I’m no good at math,” one may say. “I’m no good at writing,” says another. “I’m just a terrible student,” says the one who has given up altogether.

If you are one of these students, you will have your own story or series of stories about how you reached this point: painful memories, perhaps, of failures or lost competitions or inability to keep up. Behind all these, however, lie some fundamental assumptions—some deeply-held beliefs so firmly embedded that we may never have questioned them. Together they produce an argument that goes something like this:

Some people are smarter than other people.

Some people are good at math and science, but not English and history.

Some people are good at English. They love reading and writing, but they are no good in math and science.

Some people are no good in math, science, English, and history. They are just no good in school.

You cannot make yourself smarter. Intelligence is something you are given at birth. Or not.

You cannot make yourself into a good math student if your strength is writing essays and poems. You cannot make yourself into a poet or a lover of literature if your strength is in math and physics. You cannot make yourself into a good student if you are just no good in school.

If you agree with these statements, or most of them, you are probably from Europe or America. If you disagree with most or all of them, you are quite possibly Asian. In other words, such beliefs are quite widespread in the West, but in Asian cultures people generally hold different beliefs. The Asian view might be summed up this way:

Intelligence is like a muscle: it gets stronger with exercise.

If reading and writing are more difficult for you than math and science, then you must work harder at reading and writing. If math and science are more difficult for you, then you must work harder at math and science. 

If you find all subjects difficult, then you must work harder in all subjects.

You will only improve through hard work, in the same way that your muscles will become stronger only if you exercise them. If you work hard enough, for long enough, you can succeed in any subject.

Teaching in two different international schools in China, I saw these beliefs in action. Asian students who struggled in my classes usually responded to low grades by working even harder. European or American students were much more likely to respond to low grades by giving up.

If you are one of those students who is inclined to give up, or who has already given up, you should know that science, so far, agrees with the Asian side of the argument. The statement that “Some people are smarter than other people,” for example, cannot be verified by science. We do not even know what intelligence is, much less how to measure it. You may resort to “common sense” and say, “Well, okay, but just look around. It’s easy to see that some people are smarter than others.” Even if we accept this assertion, however, we still don’t know whether these differences were there from birth, or whether they result from different levels of effort. Think again of the muscle-bound body-lifter: he was not born that way.

One thing is clear: students who believe they can improve through hard work do better than those who believe that no improvement is possible, however much they work. As Socrates says in one of Plato’s dialogues, “the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better and braver and less helpless” (Plato’s Meno, tr. W.R.M. Lamb).

Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re no good, that you cannot learn, that you cannot improve. Put simply, these are terrible lies. Perhaps you are a very weak student today, but you need not be a very weak student a year from now. Imagine someone who cannot complete even a single push-up. Would you tell him, “Well, you’re just no good at push-ups. Don’t even try. Do something else instead”? Of course not.

Start where you are. Work hard. Accept the fact that improvement will be slow. Ask for help. In time, with effort, you will succeed. Don’t give up! You can do it.