Coexisting Concepts while Learning

Wrestling with new learning can be a really tricky, exhausting process. Whether it's forming a new habit, learning a new skill, getting to grips with a new technology or system at work- learning something new usually brings stress, anxiety and that awful sense of failure.

But how can we work round this? How can we make the learning process less stressful? I've been looking into concepts that tend to overlap during learning and how we can deal with everything thrown our way whilst we take on a new challenge.

Research suggests there are two types of anxiety - learning and survival- and both of them are commonplace when taking on something new. Learning anxiety typically comes from resistance to change or fear of failure. Survival anxiety comes from realising that change is essential and will eventually be inevitable. The unfortunate reality of many situations in adult life (especially if someone else has control over them) is that it's easier to increase the need for survival anxiety when it would be better to decrease the learning anxieties. With children, we are (hopefully!) more understanding of the learning process and strive to help children understand that mistakes are okay and they can always try again.

Similarly to survival anxiety, confidence is created culturally. Survival anxiety happens when there are threats to roles, companies and salaries- everybody involved understands that their necks could be on the line. Whereas confidence in learning happens when everybody involved understands that the learning is essential because they have had a part in the goal setting process which will come as a result of the learning and changes made. Confidence in learning comes from the mutual respect behind staple practices and principles, rather than fads or trends developed overnight.

Studies by Lally (et al. - 2009) suggest that any new habits can take between 18-184 days to form (usually around 66 days on average) and that new learning doesn't have to be practiced every day, but early consistency helps contribute towards the end goal. This links to a topic I will discuss later - balancing accountability with self-awareness. A great way to develop a new habit in order to aid your learning is to attach it to an existing good habit that already exists. For example, reading personal development material whilst at your child's swimming lesson or listening to a podcast on your commute. New learning is best facilitated through small, manageable changes like these rather than epic lifestyle switches that just aren't sustainable and cause burnout - we'll talk more about this later.

Forgetting bad habits can be just as important to the learning process. Just as time and dedication are needed to make a habit, the same rules can be applied to breaking or changing bad habits (or habits that are detrimental to your end goal). The main strategy often adopted to break an unwanted habit is to establish the trigger for the habit, but alter the automation and give yourself a new reward as a result. It's also important to remember that it's not always easy to regulate thoughts or feelings, especially when responding to a situation beyond our control, but we can always change our behaviours and our responses.

When learning something new, it's easy to fall into the trap of throwing everything that you have at the task, usually causing over-focus on this one aspect of life and often resulting in falling out of love with the learning or burning out altogether. A key part of learning is of course accountability - but this can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to accountability, there is also the skill of having self-awareness to realise that today might just not be your day. Plans change, commitments spring out of nowhere and with the best will in the world, you are not achieving that goal today without burning out. "Quit while you're ahead" I often say, then I plan my following day, have a hot bath and get some sleep. A trait I (and I'm sure many others) are guilty of is saying 'yes' to too many people and allowing myself to be pulled in too many directions. Having the self-awareness to say 'yes' to the person asking, but 'no' to the task is a big skill to learn, but will help take you further when you want to achieve big things. "I'd love to help, I appreciate you are really busy and thanks for thinking of me, but I just have too much to focus on right now to give time to any other projects. I don't have the time to devote to it so I could do it properly and I don't want to let you down."

Being accountable comes from the recognition of a few key aspects. Understanding who or what will be able to help you when times get tough really will matter. When you internally reflect on your own accountability, it's often "what if I do" and the end goal in mind that we use to motivate us. However, also reflecting on "what if I don't" can be just as powerful when you realise the consequences of not doing something are usually greater than if you did. Having a good understanding of your exact role and responsibilities within a situation helps - even people aiming to achieve something on their own need a good idea of what they are aiming for, what they are going to have to do and what the consequences are if they do or do not complete the task at hand.

Failure is inevitable when it comes to learning. There are very few people in the world who can say they learned a skill without failing or that they invented something new on the first prototype. The "failure is not an option" culture is essentially what causes the learning anxiety I discussed earlier: people become afraid to learn because they are afraid to fail. As pressure builds and deadlines loom, the learning anxiety transforms into survival anxiety. Failures in learning, therefore, should not be avoidable. Instead, we should focus on the recovery. "It is not how we fall, it is how we get back up." This recovery forms vital perceptions of the learning process as a whole. I know I'd feel a whole lot better about making a mistake if I could be shown how to prevent the same mistake happening again and move on with my learning. It's also important to note here that failures are not always personal - systems break down beyond a human's control. (The unfortunate reality of this is that in many corporate environments, a person is made to take the blame.)

On the flip side of failure comes developments. Sometimes developments happen faster than we could have imagined. There's a few key elements to making good developments when trying something new and they tie together everything I've already touched on. Developments come from all stakeholders knowing and understanding the objective. Systems based on principles rather than fads or trends are in place and everyone understands their purpose and responsibilities within those systems. The clarity of this means accountability is strong, thus creating team synergy. A 'culture of failure' can even be adopted - it's okay to make mistakes, in fact they're even encouraged, so that we can learn from them and build on them. As I mentioned earlier, failures are often encouraged and the recovery is facilitated during our education years, however it's usually seen as a sign of weakness beyond that point. Children thrive on well-established systems and the consistency that they bring - minimising learning anxieties.

As I mentioned at the beginning, all of these concepts covered can cross over and they're usually all tackled at some point during the learning process. Understanding this and having some strategies to anticipate or cope with this can help us stay focused in our journey to achieve something new.


Harvard Business Review

Phillipa Lally - How Are Habits Formed?

Learning Fundamentals

Mind Tools

People Management

University of British Coloumbia

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