How to Learn and Acquire New Habits

We at Elementool have been happy to share our secrets about how to practice good project management. But we also recognize that there is more to your job than just the technical process of managing projects.

Right. That’s why we’d like to take a moment to talk about the process of learning and the process of change. These are big ideas that affect the way you perform as a project manager, so they’re really worth exploring on their own.

When you’re managing a project, you are always adapting to new changes as they come along. On a larger scale, you also frequently have to make changes in the way that you and your team function on a regular basis – and you may find that some people on your team resist those changes, no matter how logically you explain the benefits of that change.
Even if you force them to implement changes, if they don’t truly accept the importance of the change, it’s likely that they’ll resist and eventually go back to their old habits. Making lasting changes can take a lot of time and persistence, and it requires genuine commitment on the part of your team.
This program itself is going to bring changes to your work and your life as you implement the ideas we’ve been talking about. You’re learning new techniques and methods that will create changes in the way you run your projects.

But change can be difficult, and we know that the idea of making so many changes may seem overwhelming. It might even be tempting to think, ‘Well, my current system works fairly well, so I don’t really have to make changes.’ Or maybe you’re thinking, ‘I’d like to make changes, but I’m just too busy working on all these projects to actually do it.’
But don’t let yourself get bogged down in that kind of thinking. Learning new things and making changes can be a positive force in your life.
Part of the trick is just understanding how we learn and change. It’s helpful to know how our minds take on these vital processes.

Take the learning curve. When we imagine a learning curve, we usually think of an image that shows a slow beginning as we attempt to learn, followed by a steep acceleration in success, then finally a plateau at the performance level that we are trying to reach. This leads us to expect rapid changes. This happens often, where people start learning something new, assuming the learning process will move fast, as the curve suggests. But then, when things don’t progress at the rate they expected, they feel a little stuck. As a result, they get discouraged and give up.

That’s why you need to understand that the actual learning curve looks a bit different. Imagine looking at the traditional learning curve through a magnifying glass. What you’ll see is a much more staggered and complex process. You make some improvement as you learn the new skill, followed by a slight decline, leading to a plateau that is higher than the point where you started. The skill improvement, decline, and plateau might vary from one step to the next, but this process will continue gradually upward until you have finally mastered the new skill.
So what is the reason for this process? Well, when we have a skill, we perform it using the habitual part of our brain. That skill becomes a habit, and the subconscious brain is in charge of executing the task. This means that we are able to perform the task without even thinking about it. An example of this that almost everyone can relate to is driving a car. Once you have learned to drive and become experienced, you don’t even think about it anymore. The action is performed almost subconsciously, allowing you to do other things while you drive, like talking to the other passengers in the car, singing along to the radio, or thinking about the day ahead.

When we learn a new skill, we take in new information that allows us to do things that we couldn’t do previously. This is represented by the increase in the learning curve. But, in the beginning, we absolutely must be focused on the task. As we’re learning the new skill, we need to use our conscious cognitive brain – that’s the part that does the thinking. We have to be aware of everything going on around us, and we have to think before taking any kind of action, no matter how small.

If you think back to when you first learned to drive, you’ll probably remember how focused you were on every little aspect of the process. You may have even been a little scared, worrying about getting the sequence just right. Pressing the gas pedal, keeping the steering wheel straight, watching the road signs as you drove along, and making sure to hit the brakes in time. The last thing you wanted to do was turn on the radio or have a conversation with the person next to you because your cognitive brain was too busy focusing on the act of driving.

Even after you’ve become comfortable driving, you’ve probably had the experience of driving in an unfamiliar area. Suddenly you find that you have to shut off distractions like the radio so that you can put your conscious mind on the task of concentrating on turning lanes and street signs as you try to orient yourself in the new environment.

That’s how the learning process works. New information improves our situation by helping us to accomplish things that we couldn’t have done before. This is the rise in the learning curve. But the learning process also requires us to think about and practice the new skill, causing a slight decline in our learning curve. Then, after we have spent some time practicing, the new skill becomes a habit in our subconscious mind and we can do it without thinking. At that point we reach a plateau, which is higher than the place we were before we began the learning process.

This process of learning a new skill might sound difficult, but studies have found that, on average, it only takes 30 days to acquire a new habit. NASA discovered a good example of this many years ago when it used an experimental training program to help astronauts deal with the disorienting effects of space travel. The astronauts in the experiment wore glasses that turned everything upside down, and they wore those glasses day and night for 30 days straight. Then, a totally unexpected phenomenon occurred. After Day 30, the brain re-programmed itself and flipped everything right side up again! They did the experiment again with a few changes, asking some astronauts to take the glasses off on Day 14 and put them back on again on Day 15. But those who had removed the classes had to start over again. Their brains only flipped the image after 30 consecutive days.

That just goes to show that 30 is the magic number when it comes to learning a new habit. The habit comes through practice and repetition, so you must repeat the new behavior each day for 30 days for it to get locked into your brain. After 30 days of regular practice, you’ll find that the new skill has become a part of you.
This applies to the skills and practices that you’re learning from Elementool. Focus on one thing that you’ve learned in this program and do it every day for 30 days. Once you’re sure that it’s become a habit, take another lesson and practice it for 30 days. Repeat the process with each new lesson that you learn. The truth is, you can’t learn everything in one day. Concentrate instead on moving one step at a time and engaging in a lot of repetition. Make it your goal to turn new skills into good habits.

For example, you’re going to learn several different topics in this program: requirements management, estimating, scheduling, and so on. Don’t try to implement everything at once. Pick a subject, like an estimating technique, and use this technique for 30 days for every task that your team runs. Once you feel that you got it, and you start seeing good results out of this change, pick another topic, like a scheduling technique, and use it for 30 days. Then move on to the next subject.

We’re not saying it’s always easy. Look, we’ve all made that New Year’s resolution that we were so excited about, so determined to keep, only to backslide weeks – maybe even days – later. It’s human nature. We’re biologically programmed to resist change. It’s called homeostasis, and it’s actually a pretty good mechanism for protecting us and helping to keep our lives stable. But sometimes it also works against us when we’re trying to make a positive change. That’s why people have such a hard time getting rid of bad habits.
The question is, then: How do we overcome homeostasis when we want to make a good change? First, you need to understand how it works. Expect resistance to change from yourself and from the people around you. Second, be willing to negotiate the resistance to change. When you feel that resistance, don’t fight it, but don’t back off. Instead, accept and negotiate. Be prepared to take one step back for every two steps forward.

Third, find people who will help you get through the process. Find people on your team that will join you for the ride, so that you can support each other, share your experiences, and get advice. The fourth step is to create the change process through routine activities. By integrating these activities into your daily work, it will become much easier for you to practice the new skills that you’re learning.

There are three main factors that might speed up or slow down this change process: The change agent, the culture, and the people. The change agent can simply be described as the person who starts the change process – this can be anyone, and a lack of power on their part is no excuse for not taking the initiative.
The culture refers to the environment that the change is taking place in, and it can have a major impact on the speed of the innovation-decision process. If the culture is supportive of new ideas and change, and everyone is prepared to help with the change effort, then the process will be much faster and easier. Ideally, the culture will also allow for time to learn and adjust to change, understanding that failures often happen on the way to success. And the culture must let people know that it is okay to fail. Unfortunately there is often limited time available to spend learning new processes that would actually increase efficiency – but the fact is that change can’t happen without patience and an investment of time.
The people involved in the change process are also a significant factor in its success, and every person reacts differently to change. Some will accept it right away, but most are slow to change. They often cause problems in this process because people tend to make decisions based on emotions, then justify them with facts. It’s not that people resist the change itself so much; it’s that they resist being changed. Most people handle change much better if they are actually involved in the process and feel some sense of control over it.

Given these factors, you should always introduce new ideas gradually, accepting that it’s a learn-as-you-go process. We suggest that you start slow, be patient, and allow plenty of time for changes to take place. Don’t just throw out the way you currently do everything and replace it with a whole new process. A better strategy is to implement gradual, experimental changes to see if the new ideas are actually able to improve the current process.

And be sure to celebrate the small successes along the way. It’s a good way of encouraging the team to continue with the change process.
Whatever you do, don’t try to do everything yourself, even though it may be very tempting to you go-getter types. And you know who you are. (looks at Allison)
Guilty as charged.

Instead, you should bring on as many people as possible to help out. This ensures that everyone feels a sense of ownership over the change process. When people know that their contribution is an important part of the effort, they start to feel like this thing is theirs, and they want to keep it going strong.
Through every step of the change process, you will be interacting with people, so that means you need to communicate. Everyone will want to know what’s in it for them. Help them understand how the change will be useful in solving their particular problems.

Now that you’ve learned a bit more about the process of learning, we hope you’re ready to take on a lot of exciting new changes.
Just remember: Be patient, be persistent, and you’ll be fine.

Goodbye until next time!

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