Unlearning: Are Your ‘Good Habits’ Holding You Back?

Apr 6, 2022

Most of us understand the difference between habits and goals. Habits are dependable. They’re persistence in practice.

As a recent post on Farnam Street observed: ‘Habits are processes operating in the background that power our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals. Bad ones hinder us. Either way, habits powerfully influence our automatic behaviour.’

Add to that what Elle Kaplan – founder and CEO of a wealth management firm in New York, wrote for CNBC (July, 9, 2018): ‘Habits are what make you who you are. They’re hard to form, hard to break, and there’s a wealth of advice telling you which ones to add to your daily routine.’

Both statements make good sense. So, what is the issue here?

Well, after stating the above, Ms. Kaplan then posed a humdinger of a question:

What if some of your ‘good’ habits are actually holding you back?

Interesting question, and Ms. Kaplan makes a good point. Sometimes what we think are so-called good habits – for example, the ability to multi-task – can be profoundly counter-productive. As we’ve written in the past, multi-tasking can be deeply distracting, leaving us drained rather than energized, and potentially less productive in the end.

We’re urged by Ms. Kaplan to learn to identify and eliminate habits that aren’t actually good for us anymore. In short, we’re encouraged, in some circumstances, to learn to unlearn.

Unlearning: A Case in Point

We Canadians drive on the right-hand side of the road. However, if we take a trip to the U.K. and rent a car to explore the English countryside, we have to unlearn that deeply ingrained habit pronto – the British drive on the left-hand side of the road! If we don’t unlearn our Canadian driving habit the moment we get behind the wheel while touring Britain, well, you get the picture.

In other words, unlearning is the necessary process of ditching habits that are dangerous or that you no longer need. And, sometimes, unlearning can be fundamental to innovation, as Ms. Kaplan goes on to illustrate: “Companies like Facebook and Google were able to innovate precisely because they threw out previously held assumptions about the possibilities of the Internet.”

A 3-Step Process to Unlearning

There’s quite a lot of literature out there dealing with the topic of unlearning. If you want to find out more, simply Google ‘Unlearning’ and you’ll be amazed at the breadth of material available. Ms. Kaplan, however, has managed to distil unlearning into a simple three step process:

1.Recognize When Your Current Actions/Habits No Longer Serve Your Needs

Back to multi-tasking as an excellent example. This apparent strength can, for many people, be a source of severe cognitive distraction leading to underperformance. Ms. Kaplan proposes an experiment for those of us afflicted with the multi-tasking bug.

“Spend a day or two focusing on only one task at a time. Multi-tasking may be a skill that you don’t need to utilize as often as you think, or one that doesn’t actually help you at all.”

2. Identify or Create a Habit That Works Better

Perhaps you head up a weekly meeting of team members in your organisation, designed to track progress on outstanding projects and confirm that stated goals are being met? Yes, it’s true that communication and information exchange is important, but does everyone need to be there for it?

Consider re-structuring your meetings. Impose time limits designed to identify prioritized topics first. Make a practice of using email for follow-ups on less pressing issues. Unlearning can save time and make you more productive.

3. Ingrain the New Habit With Practice

Ms. Kaplan offers this final piece of advice: “After you’ve identified what works best for you, implement it in your daily life. Remember that ingraining new mental habits is as much of a gradual process as ingraining physical or behavioural habits. Be conscious of your actions and be patient with yourself during the transition.”

A Closing Note

A recent Gallup Poll finding identified the fact that 87% of millennials believe that professional development opportunities are an important factor in choosing a job.

Though true – learning new things is essential for anyone committed to building a career – the essential point Ms. Kaplan makes is, “don’t forget to unlearn what you no longer need to maximize your returns.”



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