Dual n-back training offers a tantalizing promise: Exercise your working memory for a few minutes per day and, after only 20 days, experience a statistically significant increase in your IQ. Unfortunately, many people give up before finishing all required sessions. Here are a few practical tips designed to help you complete an n-back training program successfully.
According to more than a decade’s worth of peer-reviewed scientific research, the completion of less than two dozen sessions of dual n-back is associated with a significant increase in intelligence. The total amount of time it takes to finish such a program is less than 7 hours — not much more than the length of a single school day. It seems like a no-brainer investment in time for anyone — from students, to knowledge workers, to older adults.
Yet not only is dual n-back surprisingly little known, but many of those who hear of it, and start practicing, give up before completing the full program. For anyone who has ever played a single round of dual n-back, it’s not hard to understand why: The game is really tough! (It’s about as pleasant as going to the gym with Arnold Schwarzenegger as your personal trainer.) It’s not only that dual n-back makes your head spin, it’s also about time management: The 20 minutes it may take you to complete your daily session don’t sound like much, but we all lead busy lives, and it’s surprisingly difficult to carve out a few extra minutes every day for a new discretionary activity.
In short: We called our n-back app the “N-Back Challenge” for a reason — it’s darn challenging! But fear not, for we are here to help. Let’s go over some battle-tested tips to get you through the Challenge successfully.
When we designed the N-Back Challenge, we specifically aimed for a format that encourages you to commit yourself to actually completing the program. That’s why we are asking you to support us with a “coffee” whenever you delay a session: As long as you stick to the program, the app will be free — a monetary incentive that, we hope, will keep you on track. But that may not be enough. What are additional ways to raise your commitment — and thus your chances of successfully completing the Challenge?
Announce your commitment. There is some evidence according to which the likelihood of following through on your goals increases if you make a public commitment to them. After all, you won’t want to look foolish for having fallen short of a publicly proclaimed goal. One famous example is Thomas Edison, who liked to announce his inventions ahead of time, thus setting off a mad scramble to actually get them to work. Why not do likewise and announce your participation in the N-Back Challenge on social media, or in conversations with friends and family?
Share your progress. After announcing your commitment publicly, further strengthen your resolve by sharing your progress along the way. One way to do this is to tap the Stats icon in the top-right corner of the congratulatory view at the end of each session. This opens a separate view that displays your session and Challenge stats, and that you can share via a Share icon in the top-right corner. Sharing your progress adds to the social pressure — and may earn you some cheering on — while you complete the Challenge.
Invite friends and family. Perhaps the most powerful way to increase your commitment is to invite friends and family to take the Challenge together with you. Maybe you’ve already had the experience of getting in shape together with a jogging partner: If it’s just you, it will be tempting to hit the snooze button in the morning and stay under your cozy blanket. But if you know your friend will show up at your door in a few minutes to pick you up, you’ll be likely to put on those sneakers after all. The same applies to the N-Back Challenge. Note that, if you invite friends via the Share link in the Settings view of our app, each of you will earn a free coffee. Also, for extra fun, and to get those competitive juices flowing, compete against your friends (and foes) via our leaderboards!
Plan for Success
Once you feel truly committed to completing the Challenge, it’s time to do some planning.
Leverage “implementation intentions.” One of the scientifically most well-established ways to increase your chance of sticking to a goal is to make use of “implementation intentions” — which is a fancy term for saying that you should plan beforehand when and how, specifically, you will take action on your goal. According to one experiment, for example, if you merely lecture a group of students on the benefits of a free flu shot, few will end up taking it. But if, in addition, you ask them to write down the specific date and time at which they plan to get it, many of them will. The seemingly small step of thinking things through in advance — of planning — makes a big difference. For our purposes, this means you should plan when in the day you will be completing your sessions, and how you will deal with potential interruptions.
Do it first thing in the morning. Life has a way of being unpredictable. If you vow to complete your n-back sessions at night, you can rest assured that something will come up to thwart your plan. Perhaps you end up working late, or someone spontaneously invites you out for dinner, or you feel inexplicably tired after a particularly stressful day. Best to tackle your daily sessions in the morning instead, when you have most control over your agenda. As Benjamin Hardy once framed it: You make or break your life between 5am and 7am.
Put it on your calendar. The most foolproof way of ensuring that you’ll have time for completing your daily sessions is to schedule a recurring daily session on your calendar. We recommend scheduling 30 minutes: It will likely take around 20 minutes to complete your 12 daily rounds, but you don’t want to feel rushed, and you may want to have a few minutes afterwards, say, for perusing your session, Challenge, or all-time game stats.
Turn on notifications. If a recurring calendar entry feels too rigid, turn on notifications to remind you of pending sessions. You can do so in the Settings view. If you so desire, you can customize their timing and even their style. Do you respond well to flattery? Try the “sycophant” mode. Need a strict taskmaster to get things done? Go for the “drill sergeant” mode instead!
Form a daily habit. As social psychologist Roy Baumeister has pointed out, humans have only a finite amount of willpower, so willing yourself to keep tackling new n-back sessions may be a losing battle. Instead, direct your willpower toward a different goal, namely that of establishing dual n-back as a daily habit. This requires willpower as well, but only at the outset: As the habit becomes ingrained, it will feel increasingly effortless. You will be doing it as a matter of course, like flossing your teeth. There are different techniques for establishing habits effectively. One is to “stack” your new n-back habit on top of an old one, as in “after I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will play dual n-back for 20 minutes.” Another is “temptation bundling,” as in “I will only read the news (want) after I’ve completed my daily n-back session (need).” Perhaps the most powerful technique is the “tiny habits” technique by BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University: The key is to make failure nearly impossible by scaling back the size of the action. For example, to form a habit of flossing your teeth, start with a single tooth. It will feel ridiculous, but it works! For dual n-back, this implies that if you can’t (or don’t want to) complete 12 rounds of n-back on a given day, just spend one minute to complete a single round.
Consider falling back to the Weekly Habit. If you complete just a single round of dual n-back on a given day, won’t we be asking you to pay for a coffee? That’s where the Weekly Habit comes in: If you are unsure if you’ll be able to complete the 20-Day Challenge, you should consider switching the challenge and taking the Weekly Habit instead. Instead of having to complete one session per day, you will only have to complete one session per week. The implied time commitment is a mere two or three minutes day. (Or even less, if you increase your game speed.) This should fit even into the busiest of schedules. Note that, if you take the Weekly Habit, you may complete the 12 rounds at any moment during the week. But we’d strongly urge you to play at least one round every day, so as to establish the aforementioned daily habit. To motivate you, we’ve included a “daily streaks” feature in the N-Back Challenge, which not only tracks your streaks but also, as with other game stats, allows you to compare yourself against other users. (Pro tip: If you break your streak, there’s still a chance to repair it — but only if the streak was long and you’ve missed not more than a single day.) Once you’ve established a daily habit, you may wish to try tackling the 20-Day Challenge again.
Execute With Focus
Finally, as regards your execution, your top priority should be to ensure that you will have at least 20 minutes entirely for yourself. Try to find a quiet room where you can be alone. Shut the door. Ask your mate not to interrupt. And, importantly, put your phone into Do Not Disturb mode. Among other things, this should block notifications, which, in turn, will not only make it less likely for you to get tempted into opening chat applications during your training session, but will also prevent you from losing concentration during gameplay. Finally, once you get started with a session, it’s best to try and finish it in one go. Don’t even return to the home view of the N-Back Challenge: Just proceed from one round to the next until you’ve reached the congratulatory view at the end of the 12th session. After all, typically, the most difficult thing is to work up enough enthusiasm to get started with a session in the first place. Once you have succeeded in doing so, let the momentum carry you to the end, victorious!