People and organizations alike get stuck in patterns of beliefs, decisions and behavior that prove costly and damaging to themselves and others. Breaking free, if that is even a desire, often proves incredibly difficult and overwhelming.
One reason is that we often seek to learn something new: an idea, breadth of knowledge, a skill, competence and excellence without realizing what might very well be of equal importance to accomplish our goal and mission.
That is the wisdom, motivation, commitment and perseverance to unlearn.
“Transformation is often more about unlearning than learning.”
Not many people or organizations think about that concept. To build a new way of thinking, make a new way of deciding and acting stick and become default behavior, depending on our struggles, we often have to unlearn first.
This is not merely a task. It’s a grind.
“Learning or unlearning a behavior are equally difficult,” says Irina Cozma, Ph.D., an action and goal-setting coach, whose work is rooted in psychology and organizational psychology.
Unlearning regularly requires someone leading us just as learning does for the strongest likelihood of success and development.
“I use with my clients the framework of ‘Start – Stop – Continue’,” Cozma says “and they stumble in both performing new behaviors they need to start incorporating into their life and in stopping old habits that are detrimental to them.”
Managing these challenges is next level complex for most people with habits being natural to lean into or fall back into despite the wisdom and maybe the intent to grow past them.
“Sometimes they just need to stop a behavior and sometimes they need to both stop an old behavior and start a new one,” Cozma says. “How motivated they are to make a change is one of the strongest predictors of success.”
This is where understanding motivation can prove helpful. Is this change desired by ourselves or is it other people’s expectations or demands for us?
“Intrinsic motivation is the act of doing something without any obvious external rewards. You do it because it’s enjoyable and interesting, rather than because of an outside incentive or pressure to do it, such as a reward or deadline,” according to Healthline.com.
This is going to be the strong driver of behavior so if someone can find unlearning rewarding to them it is going to be more attractive and it becomes more possible to become a commitment, with perseverance.
Extrinsic motivation is when people pursue an activity for external rewards, that figurative carrot on a stick that has been presented to us.
This can be a strong motivation when the rewards are highly, consistently desired.
“A good deal of education consists of unlearning
– the breaking of bad habits.”
Effectiveness in unlearning is also determined by what isn’t regularly considered in traditional education and that is how people best learn and like to learn.
“Another variable that will help in their journey is their awareness of how they prefer to approach the task at hand,” Cozma says. “Some might like to read a book or article and summarize the main takeaways before applying them; others will prefer to use their network to collect additional tips, while others will just go for it and have a more hands on approach.”
She has learned that a combination process proves more helpful.
“Usually a mix of different approaches work best but it helps if the individual is aware of his or her preferred style of learning and incorporates more of those elements in (their) daily habits,” Cozma says.
There are obstacles to overcome to unlearn and build new thinking, beliefs, convictions, attitudes and behaviors.
“It’s hard to let go, mentally and emotionally,” Cozma says. “After all, that particular behavior is so familiar, is it part of who we are. We told ourselves so many stories about why we are doing it, so many rationalizations.”
She provides a common example from the workplace, one that results in creating problems for workplace cultures, a manager and human resources.
“For example, there is a typical trap for somebody who is promoted to a managerial position because they are good at their technical skills,” Cozma begins, “Now you have this technical expert from which we are asking to stop being a technical expert all the time and instead spend time guiding and supporting his team.”
While this becomes highly problematic with a slew of negative byproducts, it is not without remedy.
“The majority of people struggle in this position but with good coaching many of them will figure it out,” Cozma says. “Or take the example of a procrastinator or an introvert. Many times we accept that our personality is the way it is, we cannot change, so we will not even make an effort.”
This is not impossible to navigate either through unlearning and learning.
“It’s not easy to unlearn the mental habits that no longer serve us.”
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“But with some accountability every procrastinator can be more proactive and with some practice any introvert can give a presentation in front of hundreds of people. But before making the first step they should stop thinking they cannot or there is no way. The first obstacle is our mind,” Cozma says.
We need to and can wire the brain to stop believing something is not possible. If other people did it there is a big chance we can do it too.
There is a process and habits that can help greatly increase the odds of successfully unlearning and then learning something new in a way that stops negative outcomes and greatly increases positive or desired outcomes.
Cozma suggests “techniques that can increase the probability for someone to stop doing something detrimental that is very ingrained in their behaviors while making space for new habits.”
She recommends a focused strategy and sustained effort of prevention, welcomed oversight and replacement behavior: stepping away from the temptation, adding an accountability partner to your goals and replacing time spent on unwanted behavior with time spent on the behavior you are committed to developing as habit.
“The good news is that practicing unlearning will make it easier and quicker to make the shifts as your brain adapts.
(It’s a process called neuroplasticity.)”
Unlearning is not often discussed, well understood or taught when growth and change are wanted or directed yet it might be the path to more reliable success, development and improved or ideal outcomes.
“Learning to unlearn is the highest form of learning.”