Learning Requires Practice

practiceFall is back to school time. Summer is over and students everywhere are making the transition to new routines and the anticipation of learning new things. Even though “learning new things” is the point, this is a great time of year to remember that learning news things is often difficult.

Whether it is learning how to use the newest technologies, learning a new language, learning a new way of interacting with a loved one, or learning to stay sober at a party…the learning process can feel awkward and involved a variety of setbacks and “bumps in the road”. Your approach to the learning process however can significantly affect the outcome. Do you expect perfection right out of the gates and get frustrated and want to quit when things don’t work out like you envisioned? Do you think you should learn things quickly and with minimal effort, and then struggle when you don’t absorb information like you think you should? In your heart do you doubt your ability to learn, and have the impulse to just hunker down and hope you don’t get noticed or that you need to just accept things the way they are?

The reality is that changes in behavior require consistent effort. At CMC, when our clients set goals for behavior change we talk a lot about the value of practicing. For example, if someone has the goal of eliminating the use of a particular substance, they are going to have to practice being sober. It’s going to feel awkward, uncomfortable and there will even likely be an impulse to return to substance use simply because it’s feels more comfortable, familiar, and easier. We encourage our clients to keep practicing, all the while collecting data on what helps the change process feel more comfortable and what makes it feel more difficult. We encourage them to review the data and shift their action plans depending on what they have learned.

If you are considering making a change in a behavior (e.g., drinking less or not at all, eating more healthy, trying to not lose your temper etc), be prepared for some part of you to resist. The natural reaction to things that feel awkward is to quickly abandon them, or to give in to those creeping thoughts that you’re “bad at this,” or “that it’s not working.” You may also feel frustrated if the people in your life don’t respond positively to your changes and may feel like your efforts are not worth it if they just don’t care. The more you recognize that those thoughts are actually a normal part of the process of change, and not a reason to quit or stop, the more you’ll be able to help the process of change.

The more you give yourself room to practice, to stumble and make mistakes, to gather evidence and refine your skills, the better you will get at these skills and the more you will succeed at learning the new behaviors that you want.

About the Author:

Carrie Wilkens, PhD

Carrie Wilkens, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC and in the Berkshires. She co-authored an award-winning book, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change with Drs. Foote and Kosanke. Together they also contributed to a user-friendly workbook for parents: The 20 Minute Guide: A Guide for Parents about How to Help their Child Change their Substance Use. In collaboration with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Dr. Wilkens and the CMC team is developing a national parent training program (the Parent Support Network) to provide parent coaches to families in need of support through a free hotline. Prior to these ventures, Dr. Wilkens was the Project Director on a large federally-funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant examining the effectiveness of motivational interventions in addressing the problems associated with binge drinking among college students. She is regularly sought out by the media to discuss issues related to substance use disorders and has been on the CBS Morning Show, Katie Couric Show, and Fox News as well as a variety of radio shows including frequent NPR segments such as the People’s Pharmacy and The Diane Rehm Show.