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Want to Make Changes? When in Doubt, Go Slow

The tortoise was right: Slow and steady wins the race.

Key points

  • Learning new skills requires rewiring the brain.
  • When building new skills, it's important to go slowly to allow enough time to make subtle adjustments.
  • Going slowly when building new skills helps one avoid overwhelm, create successes, and learn from mistakes.

No news to you, but we’re in a fast-moving, gotta-have-it-now, gotta-make-the-change, do-that-makeover culture. Watch any YouTube ad, and they hawk that miraculous changes can happen overnight or at least in three days. But what the research shows, when it comes to learning new skills—such as in sports, music, or art—is that slow and steady is the way to go. Why?

Because it’s only when you’re going slow that you can focus and see what is actually unfolding. You have time to make those subtle adjustments—both in your awareness and what you do, building that muscle memory—that are so critical to building a solid foundation, both in skill and brain wiring to avoid creating bad habits. If you go too fast, this body training is lost.

But the same idea applies to changing your psychology—whether you desire to change a bad habit, better manage your emotions, or confront an anxious situation. Here, too, it’s about taking the time to do those baby steps, learn new skills, and create those new brain circuits; slow and steady wins the race. Are there times when you need to go fast and be what feels like “more impulsive?” Sure, as in taking that job even though you’re anxious about managing it; going to that party where you don’t know anyone though your social anxiety is overwhelming and you expect the worst; or having that necessary-but-difficult breakup talk with your partner. This is about being proactive—approaching anxiety rather than avoiding it—and taking a risk that, in your rational brain, you know is what you need.

But going slow is particularly important when it’s not only about everyday challenges but navigating the aftermath of a breakup or divorce, a job change, or moving through a loss and grief of a loved one. While some slump from grief and depression, others go into high gear. The crisis generates both adrenalin and anxiety, and your anxious brain is telling you to do something—sometimes to lay low—but more often, to fix the problem: Start dating; look for a new job right now. You have tunnel vision; your emotional brain is running you; your rational brain is offline. Time to slow down. Here’s why:

You’re less likely to get overwhelmed or burned out

Like drinking too many cups of coffee, the ramped-up brain eventually collapses. The adrenalin wears off, you get burned out, or you’re trying to do so much immediately that you get overwhelmed by anxiety. Going slow—for example, challenging yourself to go to a party for 15 minutes if you have social anxiety rather than staying for two hours—keeps you from getting overwhelmed and even more anxious about doing it again. Similarly, if you’re starting dating again after a divorce or breakup, going fast—doing back-to-back online dates in a week—will quickly become not only a blur but a burnout.

You learn as you go along

If you’re not overwhelmed or burned out, you can learn better. How did you feel at the party? Were you able to start conversations? Might you do better if you left earlier, stayed longer, or had a wingman to support you? On those first dates, did you come on too strong—dominating the conversation or giving too much information, or were you too passive and came across as boring? Like learning to play the piano or training to run a race, this is about fine-tuning, having the time to pay attention, and knowing what to do moving forward.

You build successes

You go to the party for 15 minutes but leave feeling you’ve done a good job; you go on a date but already have in mind questions you want to ask. By pacing yourself, you have time to reflect. You begin to build a base of positive experiences rather than ones filled with high anxiety and unfulfilled expectations, which only lead to a sense of failure or self-criticism. By taking small risks and having successful experiences, you create a positive trend that, over time, reshapes your self-image and improves your self-confidence. More importantly, you are neurologically replacing old anxious circuits with new positive ones.

You learn that mistakes are feedback, not failures

This is an important lesson for change and developing new skills. The beginning artist or musician learns that mistakes are part of learning to draw or play the piano. You can’t be a Rembrandt or a Beethoven at the start. But when it comes to habits and behaviors, it’s easy to have high expectations and to be self-critical. These expectations and self-criticism eventually create a self-fulfilling prophecy—"I can’t do this; I’m a loser."

Instead, you want to approach this like the beginning piano player or artist: that your first task is learning how to learn; that learning new skills is about rewiring your brain and takes time; that mistakes are failures but feedback about what to do differently.

But you have to slow down to set realistic expectations, focus on the process and not the outcome, notice the mistake, and calm the criticism. Most of all, learn the lesson.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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