Anatomy of a thank-you

If you owe a genuine expression of thanks to someone who really helped you out and made a difference, “Thanks so much!” probably doesn’t get the job done. Instead, try hitting three important areas.

1. Express your thanks.

Be specific and reference the thing they did for you.

“Thank you so much for jumping in to cover my shift when I was sick.”

“Thank you for helping me study for that bio exam.”

“Thank you for spending so much time reviewing my college applications.”

2. Explain why you’re appreciative.

This should ideally be about them, not about you.

“I know you were probably looking forward to your own day off and you swooped in anyway.”

“You spent a lot more time with me than you probably expected to given that bio is not my strong suit.”

“I know you have a lot of students to help, and you somehow found a way to give me as much time as I needed.”

3. Reiterate your appreciation by pointing out the difference they made.

“You saved me from cashing in yet another sick day, and I was already running out after having bronchitis last month. So really, thank you.”

“I never would have passed that exam if it weren’t for you and I want you to know how much I appreciate it.”

“I’m so excited about college and I will never forget the role you played in helping me apply to so many great schools.”

An effective thank-you pays the person back in some way, it makes it more likely they’ll help you in the future, and most importantly, it’s just the right thing to do.

Real progress or faux progress?

When you have a difficult, intimidating, or otherwise unpleasant task ahead of you, it’s tempting to start by doing things that don’t actually get you closer to finishing.

First, I’ve got to respond to all these emails so I can empty my inbox.

First, I’ll organize my desk.

First, I want to finish these other tasks [that aren’t nearly as important] so I can clear my mind.

First, I’ll check social media, poke around the internet, trade emails with people, repeat repeat repeat until I throw in the towel and say that I had writer’s block or just couldn’t find inspiration today.

I’ve done it. We’ve all done it, at least on occasion. You fill the time with seemingly related tasks and then call it a good day’s work. But what we’ve really done is spent that time hiding from the difficult or scary work. And even worse, that work will be there staring at you tomorrow, only now you’ll have one fewer day to complete it.

The best way to stop this is to recognize the behavior for what it is—a way to avoid that which you want to avoid. And once you commit to stop making faux progress, it’s that much easier to start making real progress.

How to demonstrate your leadership skills

“Leadership skills” are one of those traits that garners a lot of mentions in college applications and essays (e.g., “During my tenure as Student Body Treasurer, I developed leadership skills…”), but often without specific examples to substantiate them. Just holding a position or office isn’t evidence of leadership. Neither is just holding meetings every Tuesday during lunch. Real leaders have followers who are enrolled in a compelling vision of the future that the leader has vividly depicted.

If you’re interested in leading, or if you’re currently in a leadership position and want to gauge your progress, here are three questions to consider.

1. Are your people going somewhere?
The essence of leading followers is that you’re taking them somewhere. Is your team, club, or organization focused on a goal, change, improvement, or other destination? If not, then they’re not being led anywhere.

2. Are you the person who is painting the portrait of the destination?
Good leadership doesn’t stop with adding something to an agenda. It describes a compelling vision that people can see, to the point that it excites them and motivates them to follow you.

3. Are you modeling the behavior that will get you where you want to go?
Imagine a team captain who talked constantly of winning a championship but consistently missed practice, or didn’t learn the plays, or played so selfishly that it hurt the team’s chances of winning. The first step to earning trust from your followers is to do as you say. And the fastest way to lose those you’re leading is to show them that you’re all talk and no action.

And here’s a past post (with links to other articles) about leadership as demonstrated in college admissions.

To do better work in less time, stop multitasking

Eric Barker’s latest post, “This Is How To Increase Your Attention Span: 5 Secrets From Neuroscience,” shares key findings described in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Here are three worth paying attention to, particularly if you’re a student or adult looking to do better work in less time.

  1. People who think they are good at multitasking have actually been shown to be the worst at it.
  2. Much like the fact your body can’t lift 5000 pounds, your brain can’t do its best work while trying to juggle too many tasks simultaneously.
  3. Multitasking doesn’t just divide your attention among tasks—it also leads to more errors and more total time spent than had you dealt with each item separately.

One at a time leads to better work in less time.

How to work smarter, not harder

I enjoy Eric Barker’s blog, which shares “science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life.” And his most recent piece, “This Is How To ‘Work Smarter Not Harder’: 3 Secrets From Research,” hits on three themes that can benefit any college-bound student.

1. Do less. You can’t be great at any one thing when you’re constantly multi-tasking 1000 things.
2. Make a conscious effort to improve within those areas of focus. Don’t just expect it to happen because you show up.
3. Find the joy and passion in the work (which has as much to do with how you view it as it does the work itself).

Intentionally incomplete

When you’re working on a project that can take days or even weeks—writing a research paper, studying for final exams, building a website, etc.—you might experience the onset of burnout overnight. You end your day, even one where you made a lot of project progress, but the next day, any momentum you had is gone. Whatever you try, you just can’t get back in the zone or muster the gumption to get going again. And you resolve to try again tomorrow when you hope to feel more motivated.

In his new book about the science of perfect timing, Dan Pink shares this great tip: End the day in the middle of a task. Stop writing in the middle of a sentence. Stop studying right in the middle of an equation or a paragraph. Stop programming right in the middle of a line of code. Call it a day without a clean ending point.

This might sound absurd or even torturous to people who find a lot of mental relief in finishing at a logical endpoint for the day. But that’s exactly why stopping in the middle can make it easier to get started again the next day. Pink points to the Zeigarnik effect, which is our tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones. When you come back to that unfinished sentence or equation or line of code the next day, your mind remembers what you were doing and feeling at the time. The sense of momentum comes right back. And that can fuel your motivation day-to-day. Pink even points out that Ernest Hemingway, who published 15 books, loved this technique and often ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.

Turns out one of the best ways to get going the next day is to leave something intentionally incomplete today.

Lights off, phone off, memory on

From the BBC’s “An effortless way to improve your memory”:

“When trying to memorise (sic) new material, it’s easy to assume that the more work you put in, the better you will perform. Yet taking the occasional down time – to do literally nothing – may be exactly what you need. Just dim the lights, sit back, and enjoy 10-15 minutes of quiet contemplation, and you’ll find that your memory of the facts you have just learnt is far better than if you had attempted to use that moment more productively.”

And to be clear, that does not mean 10-15 minutes of quiet contemplation while engaging with your phone. Turn that off if you really want your memory to turn on.

Do less and obsess

Morten Hansen, management professor at UC Berkeley, just released his new book, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve MoreThis clip of his interview with Dan Pink is just one minute long, but he shares one of the vital secrets he writes about in the book—top performers “do less and obsess.” They pick 2-3 things that matter most and hyper-focus on them. Interestingly, this is also one of the central hypotheses of study skills author Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out).

Most high school students don’t have the luxury of picking just one thing to obsess about. But there’s a good chance you could do less. If you’ve got activities that aren’t paying you back with fun or learning, if you’re sprinting from commitment to commitment with no real time to dive in and make a real impact, if your description of your life begins and ends with “busy,” it’s probably time to make some room in your life to obsess about the things that matter most to you. And the first step towards this healthy obsession is to do less.

You can learn more on Hansen’s website about the book and about his work.

Help them help you

There’s a great scene in the movie Jerry Maguire where sports agent Maguire, frustrated with his lone client’s stubborn refusal to take his advice, pleads, “Help me help you!”

The actors play the exchange comically, but there’s an underlying truth in Maguire’s message.

Most successful students get help on their way to college. Teachers, counselors, tutors—whomever you’re relying on to help you accomplish your goals and get where you want to go, remember that they can’t do it for you. You have to help them help you.

Some students sit back and passively hope the help will magically intervene. They wait for their counselor to seek them out to talk about college. They let their struggle in a particular class drag on and then ask for extra credit to raise their grade. They sit through their tutorial sessions but their mind is somewhere else.

But the students who lean into their help are doubling down on efforts to improve their situation. They seek out the help, they bring their attention and preparation to the exchange, and they embrace, rather than abdicate, responsibility for the outcome.

Best of all, the ability to make the most of your help isn’t dependent on your GPA, test scores, or your accolades on your resume. It’s a benefit that’s available to anyone willing to give enough to take advantage of it.

Ask for help, sure. Then do your part to help them help you.