Learning to 'unlearn'

February 4, 2019

Last week's blog article looked at the way in which how having some structure around what you read, listen to and learn from is actually quite liberating.

If, like me, you love being exposed to new ideas and concepts, you can quickly feel overwhelmed if you try and take it all in at once.

The other side to this coin is also being dedicated to ‘unlearning’ things that you have done all your life. This might be a strange concept at first, but the way I look at it is this –

You can’t keep stuffing more and more new stuff on top of the old. Something has to give, otherwise you will end up feeling totally ineffective and overwhelmed.

This concept of 'unlearning' is similar to the idea of saying 'No' in that you are saying 'No' (or actively 'unlearning') habits that no longer serve you, in favour of learning new things that will (and for those of you that do struggle with the concept of saying 'No', I really recommend a great book called “Essentialism’ by Greg McKeown).

So, here are the big things that I am having to ‘unlearn’:

1. Seeking approval from the wrong people (and for the wrong things)

We are conditioned to please certain authority figures in our lives. Whether that be a boss, a parent or someone older than you, it is likely that you have someone in your life that you try really hard to get approval from. This can become an automatic reaction which becomes ingrained over time. Consider who you have this response to. It may be that it is someone who you don’t actually respect or whose opinion you value. Chasing their approval may just be a drain on your energy and time – not to mention your confidence. For me, it was an old boss. It took me years after I stopped working for them that I realised I didn’t need their approval, and that it was habit rather than anything else that drove this behaviour. Time to let it go.

2. Thinking in terms of time rather than results.

This is another thing that tends to be ingrained in us – especially if you have worked in most corporate environments.  Unfortunately, the culture of valuing those who ‘work hard’, work long hours, and respond to emails at ridiculous hours, is still alive and well. Worse, these behaviours are seen as a way to demonstrate value and commitment.

This is definitely a habit that I am unlearning – and it is surprisingly hard to do. Years of working in environments where it was noted what time you started (and left) and whether you took a lunch break (and I wasn’t doing shift work), took their toll. Forget if those that worked the longest hours were the least effective, they still wore the badge of being the most committed and hardest working.

It is only now, as I work for myself, that I am solely measured on the results I get for my clients. This is a huge shift, and a fantastic one. Because I am only paid for results, and I am not trying to meet ridiculous and pointless expectations and norms, I am more effective and successful than I have ever been.

3. Having to be seen in a physical office to ‘prove’ that you are working

This is related to the above. I get that for some of you who are working for an employer, this is something you may have no control over. For others, you may prefer to work from an office with less distractions than working from home.

For me, working from my home office a few times a week is brilliant. I don’t waste time with travel, I can work in an environment that is especially set up for me, and I produce more quality work because I can get in ‘the zone’. My point here is that I had to unlearn the notion that those who worked from home, or with flexible hours, were simply not working hard enough.

4.      Action = proof of activity which = proof of work/effort.

This is a big one and has potentially been my hardest ingrained habit to break.
Especially when you are an action oriented person like me, and when you can see solutions to problems easily, you just want to jump in there and get your hands dirty.

In my past life in corporate roles, it took me years to realise that rolling up my sleeves and being 'in the trenches' with my team – by doing – wasn’t actually what they needed from me. What they needed was for me to do my role – which was essentially to ensure that everyone knew what the end game was, what their role was and to create an environment where they could succeed.

Once I figured this out, I still had uncomfortable moments thinking that I wasn’t adding value because I wasn’t 'doing' – but then I started to see the impact. I had time to focus on the things that really mattered and create an environment that achieved results.

So similar to point 2 above, start thinking in terms of results rather than the number of tasks you get through.

5.      Push on, regardless of how you are feeling

Another big shift for me - the concept of having to look after yourself before you can look after others is not a new one – but committing to this in practice, rather than just in theory, is something that takes time.

First you do battle with the voice in your head that says you have to be busy – all the time. This is related to the mantra that if you have a spare half hour, you need to fill it with more tasks. This is closely related to an ingrained feeling of guilt that you can’t possibly spend an hour just doing nothing/reading/having a lunch break.

Can you see the theme here across all the old habits I am trying to unlearn?!

A couple of weeks ago I actually had a day where I just felt tired. Unmotivated and flat. My old self was urging me to stop being a sook and to get on with it – look at the to do list!

My present self actually resisted this and just went with the flow. Not forcing anything and moving pretty slowly. Funnily enough, I ended up having a totally productive afternoon – and I didn’t force it.


So, these are my top 5 habits that I am working on ‘un-learning’. Yours may be similar or totally different. The point is, there is no right or wrong here.

All I urge you to do is to take stock of the habits that are no longer serving you, and make a conscious effort to unlearn them so you can make space for new habits that will.


If you need help:

·        Recognising habits that you need to 'unlearn';

·        Thinking in terms of results instead of time;

·        Getting the balance right between action and thought; and

·        Making space for new habits -


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