Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

As I’ve aged, I’ve noticed myself returning to ideas and passions and goals that I had for myself much earlier in life. It’s been simply fascinating so far. One of the most subtle, yet powerful realizations has come as I pursue and re-open ideas from the past. There was a time I was obsessed with learning languages, a time with learning music. I notice that when I return to these old habits, while some parts are quite rusty, other’s seem fresh and to have sunk in deeper than I could have imagined. I believe part of this is due to allowing time for things to naturally seep into your brain, but another part is that new connections are formed as you continue to learn new things in other arenas.

We are trained to think that progress means butting your head against a wall and continuously pushing it forward inch by inch. However, I don’t believe this is actually how our brain learns. There’s a combination of short-term and long-term memory attributes, as well as different depths of muscle memory required to truly learn any new skill. The old adage is “Two steps forward, one step back,” and I think it doesn’t work that linearly, yet we pretend growth can be.

Have you ever felt stuck on something for days or weeks and then simply come up with a solution? Have you ever physically attempted something you couldn’t do for months and then one day you can suddenly achieve it? This happens all the time when someone is learning, and what I want to apply this to is our own pursuit of being a better, more aware human being.

So how is this practical. To begin with, let yourself be okay with taking steps back. Smile, and remind yourself that not only is this a normal part of growth, but that it’s a good sign as it means growth is coming.

Next, focus on what you are trying to actually accomplish with what you’re working on. For me, a recent example has been having less snap judgements of my friends or girlfriend. I intentionally try to give myself three seconds of pause to think over or ask why they did something, because it’s likely I don’t fully understand the situation or their intentions. Do I accomplish this all the time? No. But I’m getting better. I’m learning a new skill, and the outcome will be worth the time I’m investing. It can be difficult when I’m already in a bad mood because of something or hungry (hangry). These are the times that I feel even better when I remember to pause. However, there are days and whole weeks that go by where I forget, where I’ve done great for awhile then I fall out of practice with it. The key is reminding yourself of that initial goal, realizing you’ve taken a few steps back, and plunging forward.

Here are a few quick tips for this process:
1) Smile whenever you remember to work on whatever it is you’re trying to learn – whether it’s a personal skill, or exercise, or a new language. This will anchor it as something positive in your mind and you’ll begin to think of it more often.
2) Forgive yourself when you realize you haven’t practiced in a while. Our tendency is self criticism, but this isn’t necessary as you can’t change the past.
3) Tell a friend or a loved one what you’re working on. This creates accountability, and it can be fun to check in weekly or monthly to see how you’re doing.