by Melanie Greene

Learning by doing

Do you sometimes find yourself giving up half way through learning something new?

This can happen when we need to learn something by doing it, especially as our first efforts are likely to end in something a lot less than perfect.

Once you start to understand the process of learning and what happens within you, it will help you to realise why we may find it difficult at certain stages, and why people sometimes give up at those stages. However, with an appreciation of how to help yourself to learn at each stage, you can make the process easier, which will assist you to persevere and win through.


Think of something physical that you have learned to do (such as riding a bike, driving a car, using a computer keyboard or a new sport). How did you go about learning to do this?

Stages in learning

When we are learning to do something, we tend to go through the following stages; if we don’t understand these stages, we may falter and even give up trying to learn what we are learning.

Unconscious incompetence

This is a case of ‘ignorance is bliss’, when you don’t know how much you don’t know. You are at this stage before you get in the car for your first driving lesson: you don’t know if it is going to be easy or hard. Perhaps you are even thinking it can’t be that hard!

Conscious incompetence

This is where learning can be painful, as you become very aware of what you don’t know and your weaknesses. People often give up at this stage. With the car scenario, it can occur after the first few lessons or when the driving instructor turns off the dual controls and you are on your own – suddenly you realise how hard it will be to learn and you give up.

Conscious competence

At this stage, you are starting to become competent, but it can feel awkward as what you are doing does not feel like you. When people are learning to become more assertive or behave in a different way, they can feel that they are not themselves or that they are acting. Again, people can give up at this stage, believing it will never feel natural and easy.

Unconscious competence

This is where the new skill or behaviour becomes second nature or habitual. You do it without thinking. This only comes through practice. Suddenly you find yourself driving a car, chairing a meeting or being assertive without having to think about it.

Bad habits

When bad habits set in, it is often because we have moved from unconscious competence to unconscious incompetence.

This can happen if we do not keep on reviewing what we do and making sure we complete the learning cycle. We can get sloppy in how we do things and end up in a state of unconscious incompetence again. Just think about most people’s driving some years after they pass their test, by which time they have fallen into many pitfalls that would cause them to fail a test if they took it today.

We can also fall into this state of unconscious incompetence in terms of how we communicate with others and how we behave. We can become careless, slipping into bad habits, and unless someone feeds back to us or we stop and reflect on our behaviour we can find ourselves behaving in a less-than-constructive way.

Tips and techniques

The following tips may help you to learn by doing.

Before you begin

Get into the habit of doing the following before you practise a new physical task, skill or behaviour.

  • If you are going to watch a demonstration or shadow someone doing something, such as chairing a meeting or using a new piece of equipment, ask lots of questions before they start. Discuss the difficult bits and ask where things can go wrong. Find out how to avoid this and the consequences of getting things wrong.
  • Find out how it links to something you have done before that is similar; it helps to boost your confidence if you can draw on what you already know. Maybe you have chaired meetings outside work and can draw on your experiences in those situations.
  • Break things down into small, logical stages: for example, the process of chairing a meeting starts with setting and distributing the agenda before the meeting.
  • Identify and challenge any negative beliefs that you have about your own abilities and competence which might prevent you from successfully performing the task.
  • Observe someone else doing the task and then discuss what you saw and what happened, asking more questions until you are sure that you know what to do.

During and after your first few times

  • Be aware that you are learning by doing and that practice makes perfect provided you notice what works and what doesn’t, and make adjustments.
  • If possible, do things in small steps, one bit at a time (this is not always feasible, as it depends on what you are learning to do).
  • Make sure that you repeat a step until you have mastered that and then move on to the next step. Again, this is not always possible, as it depends on what you are learning to do.
  • Spot any mistakes or bad habits quickly – this is really important and can be where Coaching Yourself and/or asking for feedback from someone else is useful. Perhaps ask someone present whom you trust to provide feedback afterwards.
  • Notice your body language, your use of speech (if appropriate to what you are learning) and how it feels; bring these things into your conscious mind. So be aware of what you are seeing, hearing and feeling – use all your senses.
  • If your inner critic disturbs your concentration, then distract this part of your brain by concentrating on what you are seeing, hearing and feeling (see Coaching Yourself for more information on this).