4 of the most common—and counterproductive—myths about learning, busted

There's no shortage of self-improvement tips out there, but much popular advice can be misleading or outright wrong, Christopher Kayes and James Bailey write for the Harvard Business Review.

Too often, common advice doesn’t consider that learning strategies work differently for different people, argues Kayes, a management professor at George Washington University (GW), and Bailey, a leadership professor also at GW.

Pulling from their research, Kayes and Bailey identify—and bust—four common myths about learning new habits and skills.

Myth 1: Progress is a straight line

Even top performers experience variability in their work, the authors write. Understanding that the path to improvement has peaks and valleys will help you feel more patient with your progress and less likely to be discouraged, the authors add.

Myth 2: You should compare your performance to others

Comparing your performance to those who are more or less successful is counterproductive, the authors write. Instead, focus on beating your personal best. Review your own experiences to identify the opportunities for improvement that are unique to you, they suggest.

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Myth 3: There's only one way to get better

There's no single path to self-improvement, the authors write. If one approach isn't working for you, try a different one, says Monique Valcour, an executive coach and management professor. Even if a strategy doesn't work for you, you'll learn something about yourself in the process, she adds.

Myth 4: You can't take your eyes off the prize

Some research suggests that setting goals may actually inhibit improvement, Kayes and Bailey write. In one study, goalsetting increased the amount of time people spent thinking about the subject, but decreased the amount of time they spent executing on it.

Instead, focus on what's rewarding about the experience, the authors recommend. De-emphasizing the outcomes can help you relieve some pressure and have fun with your work, they add (Kayes/Bailey, Harvard Business Review, 2/13).

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