Thursday, November 12, 2009

Skills, Habits, Behavior Patterns - The Truth about How We Acquire Them

Habits are hard to break, but sometimes our lives depend on doing so. Skills are hard to learn, especially if we already have a habitual way of doing something. But our professional success may depend on learning a better way.

So what's involved? How does this kind of learning happen?

The first thing you need to know is that all behavior is triggered by thought processes, which happen in the brain. Not in the skin. Not in the muscles. Not in the bones. In the brain.

We use different words, such as traits, habits, skills and behavior patterns. But in the brain, all these activities are the same thing - a sequence of behaviors efficiently enabled by a web of interconnected brain cells. So unless you consciously decide to do something else, this neural network is automatically engaged to deal with the situation at hand.

Where do these neural pathways come from?

Well, you aren't born with them. You grow them. Each brain cell has hundreds of tiny filaments called dendrites that are stimulated to grow and connect to the other brain cells that are involved in the behavior.

What stimulates this growth? Repetitions of the behavior. Practice. 2,500 years ago, Aristotle said this: “Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it: men come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts, we come to be just; by doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled; and by doing brave acts, we become brave.” He knew he was right about this. He didn't know why, but he was. This really is how we learn behavior patterns.

Hit a thousand tennis balls, swim a thousand laps, shoot a thousand free anything the same way over and over again, and eventually the brain cells involved in the activity will grow and connect into a hard-wired electro-chemical circuit.

The good news:
     A - When this happens, you can perform the behavior without concentrating on doing it. You just do what you do, comfortably and automatically.
     B - When this happens, the behavior pattern is permanently ingrained in the brain.
     C - Anyone can do this.

The bad news:
     A - There's no magic bullet, no quick fix. It takes really quite a lot of repetition to ingrain a new skill or behavior pattern.
     B - This usually equates to months of consistent application. Think about how many golf balls Tiger Woods has to hit to change something in his swing.
     B - If you learn the skill incorrectly, or if the habit you learn is a bad habit, you own it.

The bottom line:
     A - The only way to correct a dysfunctional habit or undesired behavior pattern is to go against the grain of your learned behavior long enough to do enough repetition and reinforcement to rewire your brain.
     B - Training or instruction isn't enough to master a new way of doing something. You have to follow through with a considerable period of consistent practical application.
     C - This means that most of the learning has to take place not in a classroom with an instructor, but in the real world of work and life.

On the one hand, what happens in your brain when you learn a new skill or habit seems amazing and magical. On the other hand, there's no magic in it at all. If you want to improve the way you do something, you just have to do the work.

I lift my glass in a's to the millions of people who make a commitment and do the work.

1 comment:

Clay Forsberg said...

Learned behaviour, habits - are a double-edged sword. They can create "heaven of hell and hell of heaven." It's our selection of habits that will ultimately determine our life.

But it's important to recognize, for example, while a goal creates achievement and celebration. A habit creates consistent, incremental and exponential success over a lifetime.

Just be aware, that every action we do ... may very well become a habit. And is this a habit we are willing to live with?