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5 steps to building an effective practice

Erik Gabrielson

06 January 2017

Learning new skills and developing new ways of seeing the world is hard work. It requires repetition and practice. Practice is essential for learning, especially for adults, because learning involves not just taking in the new but undoing the old.

Over our lives we have become habituated to behaving in certain ways, and to seeing the world from a particular perspective. This habituation is embodied in our central nervous system – the connections made define how we observe, interpret, and respond to the world. These connections are stable; they don’t change easily. The good news is that they can change.... with practice.

Practices are hard, by definition. If you do something you call a practice, and it’s not hard, it’s probably not really a practice – it’s more likely a habit. Habits are useful and engaging and support our current behaviors.  They don’t develop new neural pathways. Rather, it reinforces the pathways that already exist. A practice is developed to learn something new or increase a current capability. 

We have found that there are five key elements to designing practices to take us to our next level of performance.


1. Be in Choice

The first step in designing a new practice is to choose to do so.  The key here is to be aware of whether you are internalizing the commitment to "take on" changing your behavior.  There is an emotional difference between “I choose to” and “I have to.”  If you feel that you “have to” do it, you are unlikely to be successful at creating a new practice.  The commitment comes with the internal accountability of committing to the practice.

2. Get clear about the outcome or capability you want to create

The clearer you are about where you want to go and what skills you need the more valuable your newly designed practice will be.  The more specific you are about the outcome, the more likely you will stick to your practice.  Clarity gives you direction and energy.  For example, there is a big difference between "I want to have higher sales this month" and "I am going to contact 10 more people each week" or "I am going to be healthier this year" compared to "I am going to engage in a daily exercise practice".  The more specificity you have, the more precise of a practice you can build.

3. Understand "WHY" you want this outcome

This is a step that can be easily missed or skipped over.  Many times we think that getting clear on the outcome is enough when it is more important to get clear on the “why.”  The “why” gets us emotionally invested and intrinsically motivated.  It is an investigation into what matters to you and what is driving the desire to achieve the outcome you want.  If you do not get clear on the “why” you will rationalize reasons why you were not able implement your new practice, and you will be right.  Your “why” will help you find room and prioritize your new practice.

4. Get outside your Comfort Zone and find your edge

This is where it gets hard.  Our biology is telling us to stay in our comfort zone.  We are constantly fighting against our biology.  This new practice, if you design it correctly, will make you feel incompetent (in fact, at this stage, you are incompetent, but admitting that and tolerating the sensations that go along with it are not easy). The discomfort you feel is what will allow you to learn and grow.  Embrace it and don’t beat yourself up knowing that you are on your way to the outcomes you care about.  Design your practice so that it is not so difficult that you will get discouraged and give up, but also not so easy that you will get bored and complacent.

5. Be Intentional and Consistent

Practices require effort, attention, and intention. Now that you have designed your practice, you will want to get the full benefit of the learning it will bring you.  This requires that you do it with intention and on a regular basis.  Being intentional means practice is purposeful and supports your “why” for doing it.  It also means that you plan to do it on a regular basis.  You figure out when it fits in with your current routine and put it on your schedule like any other committment you intend to keep.  It is more important to do the practice for a short period many days a week rather than a large chunk of time one or twice a week.  Repetition is paramount if you want to shift a behavior and/or improve a skill.

Do not expect a change in a week.  Behavior change takes time, commitment and repetition.  Stay focused on the “why”, the outcome you desire, and take small steps to begin with.  Once you feel comfortable with this new practice, design a new one to take you to the next level recognizing that to learn you will again step into discomfort.  Remember, do it on purpose for a purpose.

Because practices are difficult, they are often best done with one or more partner. When you have another person practicing with you, and when you have a commitment to another person to join them in practice, the probability of success escalates dramatically.  We have repeatedly observed that individuals in learning communities – groups of people learning together – learn faster and deeper than those who do their practice alone.

Good Luck!


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