Sunday, July 6, 2008

Seven Inside Tips for Mastering New Skills

  1. Be patient with yourself. This is the most important one. People often have unrealistic expectations for how quickly they are going to master a new behavior. This unrealistic expectation sets up for early discouragement.
  2. Pick one or two new skills to focus on. Don't try to change everything at once. Just as it makes sense to help your kids to work on only one or two new skills at a time, you should do the same with yourself. As number 3 below will explain, you need to give your brain time to change. It is not an instantaneous process. Accepting that fact and working with it vastly increases the odds of your success.
  3. Don't confuse understanding with mastery. Lots of times when parents hear about a new skill, like enforceable statements for instance, and have an exciting moment of insight into how it would help and why, and some become disappointed when they go home and end up doing the same thing they did before they learned about the new skill. The insight was important, very important, but the way the brain works dictates that it take some time and repetition for a new habit to form. Your brain is actually altering physical neural connections and is forming new ones. It doesn't happen all at once, as nice as that would be.
  4. Understand how your brain works. In the heat of the moment our brains very automatically shift into what psychologists call over-learned skills, that is skills that we've practiced over and over and over. So if we usually get upset and yell at our kids, in a moment of stress, our brain will tend to powerfully veer toward that old way of doing things. This is not your fault. It is just how the brain works.
  5. Use visual cues. The veering to overlearned skills is the reason why when you have a new skill you want to master you need to get it to the forefront of your mind, over and over. Post its are your best friend for acquiring new skills. Slap them on the bathroom mirror, on the door jamb of your closet. If you have young kids, stick them on the fridge (they can't read yet). These not only might remind you in the heat of the moment of the skill you could use, they also function to create repetition. Every time you see the post it reminding you of the skill, it reinforces those newly forming connections, which neurology textbooks explain, will make them stronger.
  6. Create a learning loop. Make a habit of reviewing regularly, maybe before bed or at breakfast, how you did on the one or two new skills you're working on. Without judgment review how things went. How did you handle the situation? If you yelled or phrased what you said to your child in an unhelpful way, picture how you would say it according to the new skill. Picture the scenario and visualize your calmly doing what you hope to be able to do in the future. The key is to do with with number 1 in mind.
  7. Count awareness as progress. Parents who give themselves credit for at least realizing after the fact that they could have done something differently are the same ones who go on to make changes in their relationships with their kids that make life more enjoyable for everyone involved. Those who don't usually get discouraged and give up on the new skill before it has a chance to take root. This is one of many reasons why awareness is half of the name of this blog.
Now you're ready to select one or, at most, two skills and make them yours. With patience and realistic expectations about how your brain makes changes, you can make them happen. I see who are equipped with this knowledge do it all the time.

Also this article I did over at GTDtimes looks a bit more in-depth at the dance we do with the unconscious, automatic parts of our mind every time we try to take on a complex new skill, which includes any interpersonal skills, and especially parenting. The idea is essential for understanding why we often commit to ourselves to do something and then are puzzled when we just don't follow through. I think you'll enjoy it.

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