The mind unlearns with difficulty what it has long learned.

The mind unlearns with difficulty what it has long learned. – Seneca

Can you go there, and get everything, and skip the onion rings, or are they a habit you just can't break?

Can you get everything, and skip the onion rings, or are they a habit you just can’t break?

What does that mean?
This is the ‘old dog, new tricks’ quote. Most of us are creatures of habit. We learn something, we do it for a while, and it becomes second nature.

Then comes the day we have to change that routine. Whether the change is as simple as construction on the usual road to work, we goof up and go the usual way.

There are all kinds of theories about why this is a physical, bio-chemical, or psychological phenomenon. It suffices to say that nearly all of us have done it at some point in our lives.

This is a real thing. And what is worse is when you try to simply unlearn without having something to fill that place. A new route to work is one thing. Quitting a habit can be quite another.

Why is unlearning, and relearning important?  
It has been attributed to Aristotle and many others, but Nature, it appears abhors a vacuum. It is very hard to simply stop doing something. You get into a situation where you are used to doing a particular thing, but you remember you quit, so what do you do?

That is the problem so many of us face. You used to do something (an old habit), but now what do you do? You can unlearn things, but it isn’t easy. Old habits have a nasty tendency to return. They fill a void, a vacuum, in your life. The trick I use is to fill that void with something else.

You have seen it before. An ex-smoker who now chews gum or eats carrots and celery. They spent so many years doing something, that they must have a similar habit to occupy them in the times they used to smoke. With time, the old habit fades, and the new ones become the norm. But it takes time.

And that is the crux of this quote. You can unlearn it, but it will take time. The longer it was, the longer it will take for it to fade. And if you think unlearning smoking was hard, imagine unlearning that the Earth was flat, or unlearning the Sun revolved around the Earth.

Where can I apply this in my life?
I can’t imagine living a life where I didn’t have something new to learn, and something old to unlearn. At the rate science changes, there are papers published every day that challenge some aspect of what we have learned before. It is the nature of Science, I guess.

Fortunately, I don’t have to keep up with that, but I do have to keep up with software, languages (and changes within a language family), methods, and testing. I’ve lived through top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, middle-out, procedural, and object-oriented. I’ve seen pair programming, scrum, and agile and so many more.

Each of these changes requires some habit or method to change, or even go away. Fortunately, the nature of programming is that there is always a new tool to replace the old tool, so the vacuum issue isn’t the usual problem. Reaching for the old tool, that is the problem. But in time, it gets better.

Raising kids is another of these unlearning experiences. At what point to you quite nagging them about homework? Do you let them get a scare in High School, or do you let them fail in College? When do you quit doing for them things they are now capable of doing for themselves?

And for the kids, it’s more of the same. When do you step up and start doing for yourselves what you had relied on others to do for you? Yes, some of the things you’re eager to do, but others, a little less so, right? But old habits die-hard, and unlearning can be such a chore. 8)

Then there is the issue is willpower. You are pitting your will against an established habit. That works well until you forget. Then you find yourself halfway to work on a Saturday because you were running an errand and driving the same road you take on your way to work. At least I do that from time to time.

But it is possible. I have had the best luck when I find a way to remember to do the new thing, and to make it as automatic as possible. If you have to take a new route to work, turn off the old path as soon as possible. Take a different route out of the neighborhood, don’t let the vacuum suck you in.

Where in your life do you need a change? How many times have you tried, and then given up? Do you need a better method? Do you need something to take its place? Do you need more motivation? There are things you can do about each of these issues, but you have to figure out what they are.

Change is possible, even if it isn’t always easy. The more of the issues you can prepare for, the better your chances. Know why you cannot give in or give up. Know what you will replace it with. Know the best method for you and your situation. And keep at it. Time is on your side.

From: Twitter, @philo_quotes
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Photo by ganesha.isis

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