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How Letting Go Of These “Good” Habits Can Make You More Successful

Getting smarter means identifying the things you no longer need to know or do.

How Letting Go Of These “Good” Habits Can Make You More Successful
[Photo: Ben Sweet/Unsplash]

Learning new things is an important part of career growth, and 87% of millennials say professional development opportunities factor into their job decisions, according to Gallup. Acquiring too much information, however, can be a problem, putting your career at risk of becoming stagnant, says Dom Price, work futurist-in-chief and head of R&D at the software development firm Atlassian in Sydney, Australia.

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“In the digital world, we’re privy to an abundance of knowledge,” he says. “We believe getting smart means knowing more, but in fact, it is not. We’re not practicing what we know. The acquisition of knowledge is dangerous when you don’t practice it.”

In order to succeed, Price argues that you need to understand the importance of unlearning—identifying the things you know that you don’t have time to nurture, and then letting some of them go.

How To Unlearn

Every quarter, Price examines his calendar and identifies things he loves, longs for, and loathes. Valuable tasks—those he loves—stay. Information or skills he longs to learn are added or examined further. And the most important step is looking for tasks or rituals he loathes.

“These are things that don’t pay a dividend,” he says. “They’re habits formed over time. They used to pay dividends and be valuable, but they’re not useful to me now, and won’t be in the future.”

Loathe tasks are the items that need to be unlearned, says Price, who has been practicing unlearning for a year and a half. “When you stop doing things, you get to give yourself back time, and time is the most precious resource,” he says.

For example, one of the rituals Price “unlearned” was a weekly one-on-one brainstorming meeting with a friend. “In the beginning, I loved it, but eventually we were meeting for the sake of meeting,” he says. “I didn’t feel I was getting the return on my time, but because it was a ritual that had no conflict, it continued.”

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Price and his friend cancelled the meeting, but a couple months later both men missed it. “We decided to create a brand-new meeting format,” he says. “We met outside the office and walked for a half hour. We talk about specific topics, and we each get half of the time. We had to unlearn it to understand how best to invest the time.”

Another of Price’s unlearning practices is to delete all standing meetings on the last day of every quarter. “I cancel every meeting invite,” he says. “I give people three options: Invite me back to the meeting and tell me my role and what I’m accountable for; invite someone else who can fill my role; or disinvite others and hold the meeting with the minimum number of the right people.”

Simply assessing each meeting doesn’t work, says Price. “I used to look at my calendar, but nothing happened,” he says. “I would keep things because they were already there, and then I would add more things in. I was in meetings all day and doing work at night. It was not sustainable.”

By unlearning tasks every quarter and starting fresh, you provide space for exploration. Once you go through routine a few times, you’ll realize you aren’t maximizing your time, says Price.

“It’s easy to stop things that are broken, but do they pay dividends?” he asks. “The things you most recently did feel valuable because you just did them. It’s hard to stop something that feels like it’s working. But then you’re only doing what you did last year.”

What Happens When You Unlearn

As your role evolves, unlearning helps you pivot by recognizing knowledge and skills you no longer need, says Price. “What am I used to doing that I need to stop doing? What do I need to start doing? Part of the unlearning model is knowing that progress is more important than perfection,” he says.

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Newfound time is invested equally in “horizons” that Price numbers one, two, and three. “Immediate things on horizon one tend to be busy work, short- to medium-term items on horizon two pay off in one to three months, and then there’s horizon three, which is planting seeds today that might not flourish for a year,” he says. “If you don’t plant the seed today, the tree won’t grow.”

Unlearning also helped Price recognize some of his personal habits that were getting in the way. “I was getting carried away in immediate work of tactical firefighting,” says Price. “Firefighting is not a good use of time. There are times when it’s better to use my time for fireproofing—planting seeds so you don’t have a fire to put out later.”

The best part of the process is realizing how often you don’t get things right and embracing it. “People believe their own bullshit,” says Price. “Pause and can you accept you’re not going to get everything right. It’s quite hard but it’s a good experience to try.”


Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Atlasssian’s global HQ in Manchester, UK. 

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