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Don't Despair, Understand the Three Stages of Learning

Recognizing you've blown it is progress! Whether you move forward has everything to do with how you treat yourself once you notice you've blown it. The trick is to learn from the experience.
02/27/2009 05:12am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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This blog is part of M.J Ryan's Intent Learning Series

My client Andrea was distraught. "I promised to enjoy my life more this year. But this week, all I've done is stress out over the report I have due tomorrow."

"Actually," I replied. "I'm happy to report that you're making progress."

What Andrea didn't know -- and chances are you don't either -- is that learning happens in three phases. The first is called post hoc, meaning after the fact you recognize that you wanted to do it differently. This is the "I told myself last week I would remember to be patient with my mother" stage, the "I just remembered I was going to check for jobs on Monster.com yesterday" stage. Believe it or not, learning is happening because before this, you were not aware enough to know what was going on at all.

The second is ad hoc, meaning while it's happening, you're aware you want to do it differently. That's where another client, Sandy, is in her anger-management learning curve: "As I was about to yell at my husband, I thought to myself, walk away, walk away. Then I thought, screw it, and let him have it right between the eyes." This is the "I shouldn't buy this cookie (wine, pair of $200 pants) but I'm going to anyway" stage, the "I should turn off this computer and spend more time with my family but I'm still sitting here" stage.

The third is pre hoc, which means that you've learned it so well that you've got it in place before anything happens. "You'll be proud of me," reported Lucy, who'd been learning about becoming more organized. "I vowed to keep my house clean through the holidays and I did it, no problem!" This is when you're doing exactly what it is you want to on a regular basis, with more successes than mistakes.

Here's the dirty little secret: You've got to pass through stages one and two to get to three. It's just how learning happens. And it can feel like you're making no progress at all because by definition you are exquisitely aware of how and when you're blowing it.

This is crucial to understand: Recognizing you've blown it is progress! Now comes the delicate part. Whether you move forward has everything to do with how you treat yourself once you notice you've blown it. The trick is to learn from the experience without judging yourself negatively so you don't get discouraged and give up.

Here's what I teach my clients to say to themselves: "Great. I'm learning. Otherwise I wouldn't even notice I've screwed up. What can I take from this experience for next time?" We can change. But only if we're willing to treat ourselves encouragingly so that we keep our spirits up, remind our brains that we are making progress, and mine our experiences for tomorrow's efforts.

To Try: Where are you in the learning process? Post hoc? Ad hoc? Pre hoc? Wherever you are is okay, as long as you recognize it's a stage of learning so you keep your spirits up.