Effective Practice: The 51% Solution


Knowledge of the many

always leads to distraction.

- Karl Jaspers

o one needs help being diligent when it comes to learning things that come easily. We all have experienced the joy of mastering a skill that sits well within our wheelhouse. The first time we sit down at a piano or pick up a rolling pin or read a history book or tune up our car, if we have a natural talent it will come instantly awake and sing out for more. At the beginning of the learning curve we are thrilled by the steepness of the challenges ahead. We move smoothly through the middle slog that other people would find tedious, and we quickly reach the exquisite polishing stage. We have achieved mastery, our pie crust is a thing of rare beauty and life is good.


We’re all pretty good at that.

Where we need help is learning those skills that don’t come as easily. There will be many things we want to be able to do but for which we seem to lack a natural aptitude. In situations like this, the introductory stage is awkward and embarrassing, the middle slog interminable, and if we reach the polishing stage it is often anticlimactic because, by the time we get there, we’re often too dispirited to care.

There are many aphorisms in our culture that address the practice, perspiration, and inspiration aspects of change. But aphorisms are meant to cheer us on, not instruct us on procedure. If we are going to change and grow in those ways that don’t come quickly and effortlessly, we need to understand that what makes the difference between being able to make a change and not being able to do so is effective practice.

Crucial point number one

Even though it sometimes may not feel like it, your brain is always on your side. It wants you to be successful in anything you might want to attempt. In fact, as explored in the article A New and Improved You: The Neurology of Growth and Change, it is the limbic system within your brain itself that sends you off on those quests to find new ways to enrich your life. But before it will allow you to make a change, your mind will demand proof from you that the change you are requesting is a good one.

And the proof is in the practice – what we practice and how we practice it. When we are doing a new behavior thoroughly and carefully, and when we remember to use this new behavior at least half the time, our brain will rest assured that it is an important addition to our neural repertoire.

This is effective practice and it is the only way to make a change.

Crucial point number two

The mythology of change claims that when you are looking to break a bad habit, you have to rely on your willpower to overpower your urge to engage in the old way of behaving. Certainly that’s what your shame-based upbringing tells you that you should be doing. Your brain knows better.

The brain does not have the capacity to stop doing something it knows how to do. Neural pathways are similar to streambeds. Like raindrops finding their way back to the ocean, our behavioral choices drain inevitably into existing routes whether we want them to or not. The only way to make the brain behave differently is to dig another channel deep enough to compete with the original one.

If we want to stop gritting our teeth, for example, we can’t just commit to not clenching our jaw. We need to replace that behavior with something that accomplishes the same thing that teeth gritting does. Our brain is stressed and it locks our jaw to grind away some of the tension. We have to train it to substitute another behavior that provides better stress relief than wearing out our molars.

Therefore, all change – even getting rid of bad habits – involves the addition of something new. Think "I need to replace" rather than "I need to stop."

Crucial point number three


Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot

by Richard Restak

Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain

by Elio Frattaroli

The Brain That Changes Itself

by Norman Doidge



Send your questions to me at: jan@self-construct.com.


Another secret about making a successful change in your life is that you actually need two new skills for each thing you want to change – the new behavior that you want to acquire (either that fresh, new way to behave or a behavior to replace that old, ineffective habit) and a remembering skill that shows the brain a new place to look for options. Without both of these behaviors in place to practice, your brain will lose interest and revert back to its old self.

A remembering skill is distinct from the concept of mindfulness and is described in more detail later in this article.

Your brain is standing by, ready to be upgraded. It responds best to a boot camp environment of structure, clarity and repetition. Below are some strategies for simulating basic training while still living in your busy world. You will be familiar with these strategies for you will have used them all. What this article is designed to do is to help you focus on nudging your success percentage just over that 51% mark.

Because when you reach the 51% mark, change is inevitable.

Designing new behavior

When I was a youngster my dad sat me down one day to explain that he and my mom wanted me to have some kind of music lessons but, because money was tight, I would have to choose between piano lessons and singing lessons. So, which one did I prefer? I can still remember my bewilderment over his question because I was very clear in my mind that piano playing required lessons but singing just required guts. So I opted for the piano lessons. Now, of course, I understand the difference between a trained voice and an untrained voice.

The point of this stroll down my memory lane is this: too often we assume we know how to teach ourselves how to do new things. Further, we believe there is panache to be had for being “self-taught.”

I would offer that the first step to take when you want to change something about yourself should almost always be to find a good teacher. This can be in the form of a book, a website, a coach, a friend or whatever, but first, get help figuring out two very important aspects of what you are hoping to change about yourself: the whole thing and the first thing.

The whole thing is the entire protocol that describes the new behavior. If you want to tackle assertiveness, weight loss or installing drywall, there are going to be many steps in the learning process and a logical order for taking those steps. Because you don’t know what you don’t know, you up your odds of leaving out important parts or starting at a less than effective place if you don’t get someone to paint you the whole picture first. There will be plenty of opportunity for you to incorporate your personal flavor into whatever behavior you choose to add to your repertoire, but the surest route to mastery is through conformity.

Once you have the whole picture, plan the efficient first step. Then take the first step. You may think that last sentence is absurdly obvious, but it is surprisingly common for us grown-ups to think that, since we're not in kindergarten, we don't need to start at square one. But skills are like houses in that they need a very, very solid foundation. Try not to shortchange yourself by pouring effort into steps three through whatever without first building steps one and two into a strong base. You probably won't have to stay in kindergarten for a whole year, but maybe at least a week!

And remember to spend enough time on each subsequent step to lock it in.

Designing replacement behavior

Replacement behaviors need to be designed with two criteria in mind: they have to serve the same purpose as the old behavior and they have to have fewer negative side effects.

Start by figuring out why you are doing the behavior that you are trying to replace. There is always a primary gain to the behaviors we do and often a secondary one as well. The primary gain of eating cookies is the yummy experience of consuming them. The secondary gain is quieting the yammering voice inside that is clamoring for dessert. The primary gain of interrupting is getting to immediately put your two cents’ worth into the conversation. The secondary gain is establishing interpersonal dominance. The primary gain of dropping your clothes on the floor of your closet is the instant gratification of being able to go right on to something else rather than spend the time hanging things up. The secondary gain is the joy of petulance we all get when we act childishly.

To design effective replacement behavior, first spend some time thinking about why you do what you do that you don’t want to do. And then get creative about designing something else you can do instead. If you want to stop routinely eating cookies after dinner, clear space in your week for the pleasure of an occasional chocolate chip cookie, and then learn to quiet the yammering evening cookie voice with something else.

When you come up with an alternative behavior that can serve the same purpose as the old behavior, check the side effects. You don’t want to be jumping into the fire. Back to the cookie example, substituting a diet soft drink to replace the snickerdoodle might be adding other, perhaps more serious, health concerns.

Designing remembering

How many times over the course of a week do we say to ourselves “I’ve got to remember to __________” (fill in the blank with: think before I speak, write things down, answer my e-mails right after I read them, not go the grocery store when I’m hungry, and so on.) What we’re asking ourselves to do with these prompts is to keep something in mind. Now keep in mind that we are already keeping hundreds of things in mind. To add more, we need to break into our routine and make room for something new. This is absolutely possible to do, but not with wishful thinking. When we want to keep something in mind we need a flag.

A flag is a neurological marker that gets the brain’s attention when it comes to the intersection of the paths to the old behavior and to the new behavior. You want the flag there to remind your brain that there are new options ahead.

Rarely, a traumatic incident will result in what’s called single-trial learning and the brain commits to taking the new route after only one lesson. This would occur when you forget to look for pedestrian traffic when you are backing out of the parking lot of your new apartment and you almost hit someone. Every time thereafter your brain will demand that you stop and look carefully before you drive across that sidewalk.

For the most part, however, we have to negotiate with the brain to install a flag. Sometimes we can attach our new flag to an existing flagpole. If we want to remember to take a vitamin D tablet every day, we can put the bottle next to our toothpaste and attach the behavior to brushing our teeth.

Or, as I described in the article A New and Improved You: The Neurology of Growth and Change, we can rehearse and rehearse a new behavior until a flag forms organically through repetition.

We can also create flags outside of the brain. This is what reminder notes and cell phone notifications are. We can get very clever with outside reminders. If you have a hard time remembering to stay hydrated when you are drinking beer at a barbeque, for instance, you can keep the bottle cap in your hand until you drink a glass of water.

Finally, we can teach our brain to trigger a check-in on a new behavior. If you tend to grit your teeth when you are lifting weights, for example, you can train yourself to stop deliberately between sets to do a brief jaw relaxation. Eventually your brain will associate (flag) a relaxed jaw option with weight lifting.

If you understand that you need an inside and/or an outside flag to assist the brain with remembering, it can be kind of fun to figure out how to hoist one.

Here's the drill

Now to the nitty-gritty of practice.

The more often you do a new behavior correctly, the faster it will become flagged in the brain. The goal of effective practice is to get your percentage up to at least 51%. What follows are hints about how to do that. Again, you know all these strategies – they are just collected here as reminders.

Know exactly what you are practicing. Odd as it may sound, many people try to change things about themselves with no real sense of what exactly they want to be different. A vague sense that “I just need to be nicer.” will be less easily implemented than the more specific, “I want to stop interrupting people.” And even that second option can be further operationalized to “I want to prioritize listening over speaking.” When you launch a self-reconstruction project, take a little extra time to ensure that your plans are detailed and concrete. A good litmus is the elevator test – can you explain your change concept to someone else in the time it takes an elevator to deliver you to the fourth floor?

Protect your practice time. Because none of us has the luxury of isolating ourselves from our everyday lives to focus entirely on a new behavioral system to be learned (that would be rehab), life tends to intrude on our change process. The intrusions hamper our practice, which lowers our perfection percentage, which slows change. So if we fail to protect our practicing time, we run the risk of losing forward momentum.

Some skills have to be practiced in isolation. We all need safety when we are trying something new. We can’t ask ourselves to learn how to pole vault by competing in the Olympics. But many of us try to do just that. We say to ourselves “The next time I’m in a meeting with my boss, boy, I’m going to speak up!” It would be much better to work on being assertive under very controlled, safe circumstances until we get skillful enough to maximize our chances of succeeding in the real world.

Watch how you talk to yourself. Change discussions need to be firm, gentle and consistent. Our brains will respond better to good-natured reminders that the old behavior simply isn’t working anymore, that we deserve the benefits of practice time and that all we need to do is get to that 51%. And, please remember, no shaming, no shaming, no shaming.

Lock in your learning by teaching. The old medical school model of “see one, do one, teach one” can be an effective way to solidify new behavior. Relative to this website, “see one” means to read and review the article that describes the skill you want to become adept with. “Do one” means to put the new behavior into place. And then, “teach one” by finding someone who would be interested in learning all the steps involved in that particular skill. These three steps – see one, do one, teach one – are a very efficient and effective way to download new information into the operating systems of our minds. Then, like a good medical student, you will need to keep practicing your new skills to keep them finely honed. It’s good to remember that you must maintain that 51% or the original behavior will return to power.

Rewards are always nice. Positive reinforcement is always helpful when you want to train yourself. Unfortunately our brains don’t reward practice behavior. There’s no brain squirt of happy juice when you roll out your nineteenth pie crust. (There is, of course, when you roll out your first perfect pie crust.) You have to provide the happiness yourself. You can reward yourself intrinsically with concrete and authentic affirmations that acknowledge and appreciate your diligence. A phrase that I like to use when trying to encourage myself is this one: “NOW we’re getting somewhere!” Extrinsic rewards – the ice cream sundaes of life – need to be custom made as well. We humans like to win little prizes, but incentives are the most powerful when they tickle our individual fancies. Thus, it behooves us to put a little kind thought into how we can best reward our willingness and effort to change.

Expect a long slog. Anything worth learning will likely have a plateau in the mastery process where improvement is undetectable. While you’re on this plateau, there is no way of knowing how long it will last. I always visualize this step as the long, messy construction process we encounter when a small freeway is being turned into a major one. It seems like months and months go by with little or no change. The detours stay in place and the muddy new roadbed looks like it will never be finished. And then, one great day, we find our commute eased by a new and better freeway. It is easy to get discouraged while on the long plateau and to cease being diligent about the effectiveness of our practicing. But if we persevere, one day, for no apparent reason we will jump up to the next level of potency. We have reached a neurological tipping point and our old two-lane road has been replaced by a freeway. Now we’re GETTING somewhere!

Mental practice counts in the percentages. If we let our thoughts get sloppy when we are trying to establish a new way of being, our percentage of effectiveness goes down. For example, if we are trying to rein in our tendency to remind others how to behave, we need to make sure we aren’t spending time in our heads lecturing them on their shortsightedness. But the good news is that mental rehearsals in the positive direction assist change. So, before the urge to lecture hits us, we can spend some of our stoplight-sitting-time thinking through the beneficence of letting people be.

Use future memory to support the long slog. Future memory is a phrase coined by neurologist Richard Restak. It is the ability to project your imagination into the future to visualize yourself engaged in sparkling new behavior. The more tantalizing the vision, the more beguiling the new behavior will be to our brains and the greater the likelihood of a flag being planted. Future memory can also supply some much-needed liquid courage, fearlessness that we get from hope intoxication. A vivid dream filling our hearts with great expectations is a grog with no wicked side effects. Dare we call it a long slog grog?

Become a practitioner. We become what we repeatedly choose to do. One of the things we will want to become is a person who admires the concept of always learning, so it makes sense to practice practicing. Choose something simple and fun that you’ve always wanted to learn and practice your effective practice skills. In other words, people get better at changing when they practice changing.

A nice word to add to your sense of self, then, would be practitioner.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.