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Author's profile photo Jason Cao

Coach’s Corner – How to be a Lifelong Un-Learner

Yes, you read correctly – un-learner! 🙂

There’s no shortage of learning opportunities and resources out there for lifelong learners.

However, an essential part of lifelong learning is unlearning. This is because there comes a time when our minds are so overloaded with information that there’s no place to fit more knowledge (a condition called cognitive overload). This happens in the classroom as well as in our daily lives.

In my previous blog post advocating focus, the call-to-action there is to apply the “less is more” principle. Essentially this technique acts as a ‘filter’ for your mind, enabling you to dedicated more time and effort to fewer topics and gaining the benefits of higher quality and greater fulfilment.

Rather than focusing on things that matter, unlearning is a strategy that clears useless knowledge and unwanted behaviours that are getting in the way of your learning journey. Old ways of thinking and bad habits can distract, clutter and delays our ability to make the proper connections and learn effectively.

For example, when I want to lose a few kilograms of body weight by exercising, old habits such as eating sugary deserts and snacking throughout the day makes it difficult for me to achieve my goal. Even if I know it’s important to exercise, and that exercising will help me lose_weight, if I don’t change my snacking habits I may eventually give up on exercising because of the slow progress I’m seeing. Adding to my obstacles is old knowledge – “you can eat anything as long as you exercise.” That might have been valid when I was in my 20s, but no longer practical as a middle-age man with much lower metabolism.

Let’s focus on ways to unlearn bad habits (keeping more extreme scenarios such as addiction out of the picture at this time).

  • Practice mindfulness – this simply means identifying our thoughts, emotions and actions (see my previous post on how these 3 are related). Gaining greater awareness of ourselves will help us determine what is causing our habits and whether they are affecting our goals in a positive or negative way.

Many believe that habits (good and bad) are formed by reminder, routine and reward. In this way, reminder is the trigger, whereas routine is the resulting behaviour of the trigger, and reward is what reinforces the behaviour. In my case, stress (reminder) triggers reaching out to grab a snack (routine) that gives me a good feeling in my mouth (reward). Over time, I learned to satiate myself the same way when I feel stressed.

Knowing this means I can start forming a strategy to unlearn this bad habit, including one or a combination of the following:

  • Removing or reducing the triggers – if stress leads to snacking, then it’s logical to think that removing the stress will remove the reminder for snacking. Making changes to my work, and even switching jobs, may change the scenario, but it still doesn’t guarantee that I will not be stressed again in a new job.


  • Replace the reward – The next obvious option is to replace the unhealthy snack with something healthier like fruit. This turns the bad habit into a good and healthy habit. However, it may still not support my ultimate goal of losing weight.


  • Reframe and redefine – This option requires a bit more effort, and imagination. What if I can see deadlines, deliverables and other demands as positive things such as validation of my skills and contributions, rather than as stressors? What if I can see weight_loss as a reward whose long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term relief from snacking? The benefits could also include feeling better physically, having more energy, greater self-esteem, and saving money by fitting into my existing clothes.


You’re not alone. Change is hard, especially when you want to unlearn a bad habit, so supplement your unlearning journey with all the resources available to you:

  • Get a life coach
  • Find support from friends, family and work-out buddies
  • Give yourself a break (be compassionate to yourself) – you may slip and fall, you may need to start small (like moving my snacks to another room)

To be a lifelong learner, we must accept that some of our knowledge and habits are outdated, and be willing to let them go in order to make space to learn new things.

Do you have an unlearning experience? Please share in Comments below and how you did it.


Check out more blog posts in this series: Coach’s Corner.

Photo by Shiromani Kant on Unsplash

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      Author's profile photo Lisette Muntslag
      Lisette Muntslag

      Great topic, how do you unlearn being an out-of-the-box thinker if you have an inquisitive mind and are open to life-long-learning?

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks Lisette! And nice question.

      From my perspective, being an out-of-the-box thinker is a good habit to have. However, it is possible that solely coming up with new ideas or chasing the next 'shiny object' can get in the way of getting things done.

      In this case, it would be important to understand and define your purpose first, to align and focus your time spent on your inquiries. Limiting yourself to fewer ideas will also help you focus on how many things you're doing at one time. Many innovators also have a good support network who will not only give feedback to their ideas, but also help them implement and execute on their ideas.

      Please let me know if these suggestions helped, and if you have tried anything else to support your learning journey!

      Author's profile photo Lisette Muntslag
      Lisette Muntslag

      Great insight Jason, thank you!

      While doing my financial accounting exercises I encountered problem ‘fiscal year variant k4 not defined in calendar year 2001’ and it stopped me in my tracks. Solution oriented that I am, I discovered openSAP. Taking some courses empowered me to do exactly what you suggested, understanding, and defining my purpose. My focus went from end-user to learning about the new technologies. Coming from an art and fashion design background I challenge myself to expand my horizon beyond what I anticipated. I could not resist joining the SAP community…😊

      Chasing the next ‘shiny object’ is another interesting topic. I have my thoughts, but it would be interesting to hear from you about this phenomenon.


      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for sharing how you apply your learning approach Lisette! It's also interesting to hear how you joined the SAP Community in your learning journey.

      'Shiny objects' is indeed a fascinating topic, and captures a good amount of people's time and effort for different reasons. Some are motivated with new and leading edge, while others are carried along by a wave of fads and trends, and yet others fear missing out on important developments altogether. These are called 'shiny objects' because they are attractive, but also distracting. Following my own 'compass,' rather than that of the crowd has helped me distinguish how much time to spend on shiny objects. 🙂

      Author's profile photo Lisette Muntslag
      Lisette Muntslag

      Thank you Jason, we are on the same page....following my own compass on this journey was maybe not the best of action but because quality and substance are important to me, I just did it my way. Learn and grow. 🙂