What You Should ‘Unlearn’ to Actually Succeed at Work

Photo:  ESB Professional (Shutterstock)
Photo: ESB Professional (Shutterstock)

A colleague recently said to me, “Unlearning is the new learning.” I laughed and rolled my eyes given it sounded…well…kind of dumb. But then, we got to talking more specifically about how many of us approach improving or advancing our careers. We layer on. We seek to expand and increase our earnings, our title, and our scope of responsibility. We aspire to do more to get more. Yet, we rarely think through what we need to take away to create the space, energy, and time needed to achieve our new goals.

This is where unlearning comes in, which is to abandon or give up knowledge, ideas, or behaviors. This is to notice something you do that stops you from being your best and then unwinding it so that you can be free from it. It enables you to behave differently and in a new way that benefits you more.

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Unlearning is an obvious switch of language and perspective. One might say that unlearning is just learning to do something different. Sure. But sometimes altering the way we think about our work or behaviors makes it more enticing to try something new and thus find success.

The steps to unlearn offered by experts are simple. Here is an example of how to unlearn:

  • Recognize and accept that something you’re doing is now ineffective or irrelevant.

  • Seek new information, behaviors, and thoughts to replace those irrelevant actions.

  • Immerse yourself in the new behaviors to reinforce the new and let go of the old.

Seems intuitive, right?

What is more potent is identifying what to unlearn. This is the first step and often, the hardest. Here are a few examples to help you think about what to unlearn so that you improve your performance (and your wellbeing) at work.

Unlearn that you must suffer to succeed

This is engrained in our work culture. It’s the “no pain, no gain” mantra of performance. It is a belief that working longer and harder is better and that rest and taking breaks are a sign of weakness. Moreover, busyness is a status symbol and if we’re not busy, we’re not adding value and thus not doing everything we can to succeed.

It is this belief that has marched us straight into a path of burnout, sky-rocketing health-care costs, and general misery in the workplace. For many, it is also very difficult to unlearn.

If you fall prey to this belief and it’s one you would benefit from unlearning, then start small by introducing more rest into your day. This might look like taking a couple brisk walks or shortening the number of hours you put in over the weekend.

Unlearn to gossip about your coworkers

If there is one big time-suck that nearly everyone can get caught up in, it’s gossip. This is to blow time talking about others, often with undertones of delighting in their misfortune. Yet, all it takes is to put yourself in the place of the person being talked about and envision yourself as the topic of other’s chatter and you can see how it doesn’t just waste time, but damages relationships and erodes trust.

What makes it difficult to unlearn is that it can serve a purpose. Peggy Drexler writes in Forbes that “throughout human history, gossip has been a way to bond with others—even a tool to isolate those who aren’t supporting the group.” It can build relatedness, which makes it so enticing to participate in.

Unlearning this requires having a few standard phrases at the ready to deflect it when it comes up. You can covertly change the topic or be more overt and say, “Hey. I don’t want to gossip about others.” Either way, unlearning to gossip will benefit everyone.

Unlearn focusing on deficits

After a busy day, it is natural to look back and notice everything that didn’t get done. Or, when considering a career change, focusing on all the experience you don’t have. This is to see what’s missing before seeing what is possible and it’s a trap of deficit-based thinking. This mindset can not only hold us back from taking risks, but it also holds us back from recognizing and replicating our achievements.

Unlearning this mindset requires dedicating time to reflect on successes and learnings. It’s worth the investment. Research shows that “employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect.”

The next time you catch yourself lamenting over what’s missing or not working, shift to noticing what you’re learning. Even in the toughest jobs, there are moments of good decision-making, problem-solving, and relationship-building. These are the moments that should capture your attention.

Is unlearning the new learning? Maybe. It, for sure, is a subtle shift in thinking that can help anyone pick up new skills, behaviors, and beliefs. By identifying what we need to stop doing, we can replace it with something more productive, and then practice it to make it stick.

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