Learning into Action

If knowledge is power then learning is your super power. Here’s how to really benefit from learning!

So you’ve just completed a really great training, learning or business planning workshop. Your head is now swimming with new ideas, concepts, skills and tools to apply immediately, but you likely feel both empowered and a little overwhelmed! Are you really expected to remember and apply everything, or is it best to just apply two or three things from the workshop that will have the biggest impact for you? Do you practice applying everything all at once so you don’t forget anything, or do you apply one thing at a time until you’re confident enough to move onto practicing the next thing? Here’s what the science says about embedding learning and turning it into action.



Fact 1. You simply can’t take it all in!

Cognitive load is the term used to describe the point at which your brain reaches its full capacity in terms of processing completely new information, before a sizeable mental break is needed. Typically in training or learning workshops there’s lots of new ideas and information being thrown around, and your cognitive load is unique to you. Some people can consume new information for hours on end, others may reach their capacity in less than an hour before needing that mental break. Either way, chances are there are only certain chunks of information that really sank in, and the rest you may remember ‘hearing’ but probably couldn’t do much with. You may have found your mind wandering or drifting off at times, which is typically a sign of your being at full cognitive capacity.


Fact 2. One thing at a time. 

For the concepts, skills and tools you do remember or have notes for, learning and behavioural science says it’s best to practice doing one thing at a time, getting really good at it, and then moving onto the next one and repeating the process. Here’s why.

When learning new information we typically go through 4 stages of learning.

Stage 1 of learning is called ‘Unconscious incompetence’.  We are at this stage when we are not yet competent at the skill or behaviour but we are not even aware of it! For example, my 15 month old daughter tries to copy me putting my shoes on, she’s rubbish at it but has no idea. We often don’t know what we don’t know, so it takes something to trigger our awareness of the incompetence to move onto stage 2.

Stage 2 of learning is ‘Conscious incompetence’.  We are at this stage when a light-bulb goes off in our awareness and we realise or become aware of our incompetence at the skill or behaviour (training is great for these light-bulb aha moments!). Think about the first time you tried to drive a car, or ride a bike, and you realised just how bad you were at it. Practice, practice, practice is the only way to move past stage 2 onto stage 3.

Stage 3 of learning is ‘Conscious competence’.  We arrive at this stage after enough practice (and failed attempts) that we become competent at the skill or behaviour, but it still requires conscious mental energy and focus to do it. Just think about the day you first passed your driving test…you could drive, but god damn you had to focus on what you were doing! Mirror….signal….manoeuvre….

Stage 4 of learning is ‘Unconscious competence’.  This is the holy grail of learning, also referred to as ‘mastery’ and is only achieved with enough practice that we become so good at the skill or behaviour that we don’t even have to think about it to do it. After years of driving (or riding a bike if you can’t drive a car) we are able to drive from A to B without much conscious effort on the pedals, steering, changing gear, checking mirrors or indicating. Instead we can enjoy the views or ponder life while our automated patterns of thinking take care of the driving. That’s unconscious competence. So is texting while driving, but don’t do that!




Here’s 3 simple things you can do to turn learning into action…

You simply can’t take it all in, but you can take notes! 

# 1. Capturing your own notes during training or any learning environment is critical. The process of writing notes keeps you present, but even if you’re not able to fully process all the new information in the workshop due to reaching your cognitive load, having taken your own notes enables you to later recall key discussion points and topics for processing the information again and again post the learning experience. Good old fashioned pen and paper is also proven to be more effective than using a technology device for taking notes in terms of memory retention. So make sure you put pen to paper next time you are wanting to learn new information effectively.


One thing at a time, or a logical plan for your practice! 

# 2. Practice applying one thing at a time. Following the training or learning workshop, the concepts, skills or tools you’ve learned are still new to you, meaning you are likely at stage 2 of learning with each of them – conscious incompetence. Trying to apply too many new skills or behaviours that require conscious effort and focus all at once will likely stress your brain’s capacity, meaning you are more likely to mess them all up when applying them back on-the-job. Or worse still, you might give up on all of the new skills or behaviours altogether and simply go back to applying the old behaviours you’ve always used!

# 3. Create a logical plan for practicing the new skills and behaviours. Ideally you want to be at the confident end of stage 3 for each new skill or behaviour before moving onto the next one to practice and master. The caveat to this is when skills can be logically paired up for practice. For example, if you attended a communication skills course and learned how to apply great questioning skills and listening skills, then pairing these skills together in your on-the-job practice makes sense. Or, if you learned about problem solving and critical thinking as two separate concepts, then practicing applying these skills together also makes sense. However, it probably wouldn’t make sense to pair up practicing questioning, listening, problem solving and critical thinking together, as that’s a lot of conscious mental effort required all at once in so many different directions.




If knowledge is power then learning is your super power! You’ve spent time attending the training, learning or business planning workshop but that doesn’t automatically mean your learning turns into action and behaviour change! Having strategies to overcome your inevitable cognitive load will ensure you don’t miss anything important in the workshop, while taking time and logical practice on-the-job to move yourself through the 4 stages of learning for each new concept, skill or tool one at a time will ensure you actually reach conscious or unconscious competence in each! The alternative is fluffing around for a while, spending your time trying too many things all at once, and eventually just ending up back where you started perhaps just now consciously aware of your incompetence.

So start turning your learning into action, maybe starting with what you’ve learned in this article…



Hudmon, A. & Chudler, E. H. (2005). Learning and Memory. New York: Infobase Publishing.

Launer, J. (2010). Unconscious incompetence. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 86, 628-628.

Plass, J. L., Brünken, R. & Moreno, R. (2010). Cognitive Load Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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