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Change your behaviour one tiny step at a time

Barry O’Reilly’s masterclass on his unlearning system

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“Disruption does not actually apply to organisations. The truth is it applies to individuals.” Barry O’Reilly

If you’re struggling to solve a problem but unclear why, the ‘unlearning system’ could be for you. Yet, people get upset when they’re told to unlearn, says Barry O’Reilly.

The author of bestseller Unlearn told this week’s masterclass that unlearning wasn’t a negative concept.

Instead, it’s a system or process or moving away from outdated concepts, and taking in new information to inform effective decision making and action.

He used the examples of:

  • The Romans, who - when conquering other nations - would give up their own practices as soon as they found better ones.
  • Chat GPT - which has been around for a while, but is now seeing the fastest adoption of technology in the world.
  • Serena Williams’s comeback under new coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Habits that no longer served her were stopped and replaced with new ones.

“We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop [doing].” – Peter Drucker

Free Download: 10 Leadership Qualities That Will Help Solve Challenges in 2023

How do I know what I need to unlearn?

You know you need to unlearn a behaviour or habit when you are:

·       Not living up to your expectations

·       Struggling to solve a problem but unclear why

·       Aware your secret sauce suddenly doesn’t work

·       Avoiding a situation

·       Trying everything you know and still falling short

This is when you need to cycle through Unlearn-Relearn-Breakthrough-Unlearn

Where do I start?

Using a piece of paper or The Unlearn Canvas, name the obstacle (or obstructive behaviour).

Our masterclass shared their obstacles and challenges. They included:

  • Time management
  • Procrastination
  • Distraction
  • Conflict resolution
  • Imposter syndrome
  • Too much food
  • Saying yes

(Scroll down to see the word cloud with all the challenges put forward)

To take action on your own challenge, start small. It's the kind of advice we see in our favourite quotes from Atomics Habits author James Clear. Start with tiny behaviours you can role model in yourself before you try to change your organisation. These changes will inspire your team and may eventually roll out across the organisation.

Characteristics you must cultivate in order to unlearn

Many unlearning skills are the soft skills so in demand for career success today, so making an effort to cultivate them is a win-win!

·       Curiosity – being open to new ideas.

·       Ownership – Own the result. Don't blame others if you are not getting the results you want.

·       Commitment – sticking at things.

·       Being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

·       Creating safety to succeed – start small so it is safe to fail.

Remember the mantra: Think Big. Start Small. Learn Fast.


Select a challenge you wish to tackle by owning it. Ask yourself “Where am I experiencing a feeling of being stuck?”

Write a story of success as a press release for yourself. To get yourself inspired, write your vision into a press release that shows the outcomes a couple of years into the future. What new behaviours would people be seeing in your future? Be bold.

Create an unlearn statement:

I will unlearn [this challenge] before [this constraint]. I know I have unlearned when [list of outcomes – preferably in terms of rate or ratio – will occur to demonstrate we have addressed the challenge.”


For a client whose challenge was a team afraid to make decisions (and so deferred to her too often) the unlearn statement read:

I will unlearn decision making before March 31 (three months time). I know I have unlearned when:

·       100 percent of decisions are safe to fail.

·       100 percent of my direction is what is to be achieved with context of why it matters.

·       0 percent of my direction is how to achieve it – the accountable individual will decide.

·       0 percent of teams I lead demonstrate learned helplessness for their decision making responsibilities.

Barry's own unlearn statement for his challenge of stress was:

I will unlearn stress before March 31 (three months time). I know when I have unlearned when:

  • 80% of the time I go home feeling accomplished
  • 25% of my work is focused on personal development ideas


Relearning is all about behaviour design. Trained in the BJ Fogg Behaviour Model (Behaviour = Motivation, Ability, Prompts - that come together at the same moment), Barry says the key is to start with something really easy to do.


In this behaviour design exercise, ask yourself:

·       What aspiration or outcome did you write down?

·       What behaviours cold lead you to that aspiration or outcome?

In the example of the client whose team wouldn’t make decisions, she changed her behaviour in a small way by refusing to make any decisions on the team's behalf for a whole day. 

Start tomorrow

So, today or tomorrow, ask yourself ‘what could be a small, uncomfortable behaviour I can adopt?’

Suggested timeline:

Tomorrow – Share your unlearn challenge with your team.

1 week – Do a lunch and learn for your team; check in with an accountability partner; have a coaching phone call with your facilitator; coach your team to write unlearn statements.

1 month – Complete your action learning review and share it; start a weekly Unlearn accountability group a the organisation; Implement ‘after action learning reviews’ for the team.

3 months – Begin a new unlearning challenge

6 months – I will…….

“Knowledge grows and simultaneously it becomes obsolete as reality changes. Understanding involves both learning new knowledge and discarding obsolete and misleading knowledge.” – Bo Hedberg

Barry recommended these books:

  • B.J.Fogg's Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything
  • Anders Ericsson's Peak: Secrets of the New Science of Expertise


challenges word cloud

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