How do you unlearn something?

Photo credit - Tero Vesalainen via

Photo credit – Tero Vesalainen via

In times of innovation, increased technology and changes to the resources available in organisations, new operating processes are part of the changes afoot. When learning new ways of doing things, you need to unlearn the old ways and relearn the new. How do you unlearn something?

What is unlearning?
Unlearning requires finding new perspectives or new ways to think about established practices. The challenge is in being able to get that new perspective when the pull of the well-developed routines pulls you back to your old ways. So – how can you do it?

Finding a new mindset
Being able to see familiar situations in new ways, requires a new mindset. That‘s easily said. It takes some doing to be able to see things beyond our usual perception of them. Marga Biller, project director of Harvard’s Learning Innovations Laboratory suggests some things to reflect on, to facilitate the unlearning process. These include:

  • whether our current habits/processes are helping to achieve our goals
  • if not, how can we change them in whole or in part?
  • what triggers us to go adopt the usual behaviours?

The purpose of these is to develop greater awareness of our habitual routines and to try to catch ourselves before we adopt them. These are not easily achieved on one’s own. Feedback and sharing ideas with supervisors/managers, peers or colleagues can help in boosting our awareness of this.

The practice of self-reflection
A practice that can increase your awareness of your own preferences is to develop a habit of self-reflection that is triggered by experiences. If you find yourself resistant to a new idea or other people’s ways of doing things, ask yourself why you are reacting that way. If the answer is because of a disagreement or conflict, consider what can be learned from them.

By opening ourselves up to considering new ideas or reconsidering familiar ones, we are re-opening our curiosity for things we know and things we don’t. This awareness and acceptance of a need for a new way of operating are important first steps in effecting change. To unlearn and relearn awareness and acceptance are prerequisites for action.

Do you have a story to share about when you needed to unlearn and relearn something?

Source: Shaffer, Leah. 2017. Why ‘Unlearning’ Old Habits Is An Essential Step For Innovation in KQED News – Mindshift, 23 June 2017

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