The Sherlock Homes Method: Learning to Unlearn

Learning to unlearn is a challenge, but unlearning can done.

When it comes to finding inspiration from fictional characters, one should be a little wary of the brilliant Sherlock Holmes.

The world’s greatest detective exhibits some troubling characteristics throughout the series of 18th-century stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s Holmes’ disquieting addiction to hard drugs. There’s also his sense of superiority that severely limits his personal relationships. On top of all that, there’s Holmes’ frustrating tendency to hold off on revealing crucial details until the climax of each story.

Yet for all of Holmes’ faults — and there are plenty — there’s no denying he possesses an incredible mind. One of the secrets to his success is something that we’d all be better off with: the power to unlearn what we’ve already learned.

The Mind as an Attic

Holmes shunned all “unnecessary” knowledge (from politics to astronomy). As he explained to his loyal companion Watson, the mind is like an attic. A foolish person fills an attic — or his mind — with absolutely everything they come across. That crowds the area and makes it difficult to find the useful things.

Holmes said:

“Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order…you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

For most of us, dropping a bad habit or fixing a bias is a lot harder than moving old furniture from the attic. The more modern metaphor for the mind would be a computer. Like a computer, our brain quickly grows outdated with flawed  and inefficient behaviors. However, the powerful and practical skill of unlearning is attainable.  Pushing aside bad or outdated habits when can lead to a long and successful career it any field. It also prepares us for anything life has to throw at us.

The act of self-monitoring can change the way you live for the better. Here’s how to do it. Just be warned: learning how to unlearn is harder than merely learning.

The Strength of Self-Monitoring 

Unlearning a habit can’t be done overnight. It’s a slow process that takes serious effort. The best way to unlearn something is through the act of self-monitoring. Through this technique, you pay close attention to your habits (particularly the bad ones) in an effort to learn more about yourself. While you think you may have had a full understanding of your problem before, self-monitoring quantifies these habits and makes them as clear as day.

To begin the process, you need to record your observations in a notebook, a note-taking app or whatever you’re most comfortable with. Let’s say you’re trying to cut back on wasting time — whether it’s from watching a YouTube video, meandering on social media or opening up a game on your phone.

Whenever you engage in one of those activities, record it in a log. You don’t just record what you did, but how you felt at the time. Were you stressed before firing up a game? Were you bored when you decided to waste 30 minutes on Facebook? By noting the occurrence in your log, you can find out the trigger that caused the behavior.

Breaking the Habit

We’re all creatures of habit, whether we’re toiling in an office or we’re like Sherlock Holmes and solving unbelievable mysteries. Our mind settles and relies on routines — such as our commute to work or our pre-work coffee drinking ritual. Routines aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as they limit the decisions we need to make during the day and can actually improve productivity.

There are, however, routines that do more harm than good. Our tendencies under pressure are hard to change. Our reactions to conflicts are often similar. That’s great news if you’re dauntless in the face of adversity. For regular people, we react with nervousness, prevarication and other less-than-desired traits.

Utilize self-monitoring next time you deal with a difficult situation. By having your reaction in a log, you’ll plainly see how you responded without being clouded by your memory and emotions.

Unlearning Through Data

While Sherlock Holmes never self-monitored his behaviors, he probably would have benefited from such a strategy. The data acquired on ourselves over time is invaluable. Without it, we’d be unable to realize what needs to be changed — and make a conscious effort in unlearning those activities. Holmes’ foibles make for good reading, but us non-fictional types need to learn how to unlearn our less desirable habits.

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