Wednesday, September 29, 2010

There's No Quick Fix - Ingraining a New Skill or Habit Takes Time

Say you're at work and you’re really busy and someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, you got a minute? You need to hear this.”

You say, “Can it wait?” But she says it’s important, so you try to listen while you continue working.

In a busy workplace, people react out of habit. They don’t think, “What’s the best way to handle this?” They just handle situations the way they usually do. Hopefully, their habitual way of doing things is effective.

But multi-tasking is an awful way to listen. If you want to listen well nearly every time, you need to make effective listening practices your habit.

And you can't change your way of listening by reading a book about it or by watching a video. You have to do it right over and over until it becomes a habit.

Here’s an example from my own life of what it takes to ingrain a new behavior pattern. I love to swim for exercise and health. One day I was in the pool swimming laps, and when I got to the end of one of the laps this guy was standing there with a whistle around his neck. He said, “Hey! Let me give you a tip. When you bring your arm over, don’t slap the water. Reach out and gently put it in the water and extend it all the way. That way you’ll pull more water back and you’ll move through the water easier.”

That made sense to me. So for the rest of my swim, I tried to do what he said. But it was awkward. I did another 15 laps, concentrating on the technique. That’s a lot of strokes, but at the end of the swim, I still didn’t feel comfortable. But I believed him, so I persisted. At some point a few months later, it dawned on me that I was doing it right without thinking about it. It just felt natural.

Why did it take so long to ingrain the new technique?

The answer is that to establish the new behavior pattern, I had to rewire my brain.

Everything you do is directed by your brain. On the one hand, you can do something based on conscious analysis and decision-making.

Or, you can do it simply because that’s how you do it. To react automatically like that, you need to have all the brain cells involved in that action already wired together. If they’re not interconnected, then you consciously have to direct yourself to perform the correct behavior.

Every skill, habit or behavior pattern requires a special neural pathway. It’s a lot like hard-wiring in a device. If you do something repeatedly, the brain cells involved will be stimulated to grow tiny filaments called dendrites. With enough repetition, the dendrites will grow until they connect with the other related brain cells. When they’re all interconnected, your brain will have the physical circuit that enables the behavior, quickly and efficiently. The new behavior will become a habit.

How long does this take? The process is driven by repetitions of the behavior. So how long depends on how many times you apply the skill in your work or life. If you’re committed and you do it five or six times a day, the ingraining process will happen faster, maybe in a month or so. If you remember to do it every ten days, and if you make mistakes and learn from them, that’s learning, too. But it’s going to take you quite a bit longer to make the skill a habit in your work.

I know this from personal experience. Even though I have expert knowledge in people skills, several years ago my team complained about the way I listen. Though I struggled with their feedback, I eventually improved my listening skills. But it took me nearly two years before I was doing it right without thinking about it.

The good news is that you can make any life skill your own. But ingraining the skill will take lots of application in the workplace—the equivalent of swimming hundreds of laps. This phase of learning has to happen in the real world, not in the classroom.

There's no getting around it. You gotta do the work.

This article is based on my interview with Meredith Bell on this topic. Would you like to watch the video clip?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (License to use image purchased from

1 comment:

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Very interesting post, Denny. I need to get in the habit of walking everyday, and I read somewhere that it takes two weeks of doing it consistently to begin to set the pattern.