6 Tips to Help You Apply What You’ve Learned

“A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.” ~Kahlil Gibran

Have you ever read a book or a blog post and felt a profound sense of clarity—like you knew exactly what you needed to do—only to find yourself feeling paralyzed by the same old struggles hours or days later?

Have you ever listened to advice and felt certain you could apply it, only to find your resolve weakening when you were left to your own devices?

I have had these experiences many times before.

I remember when I was going through my hardest break up, many years back. After a long pep talk with a friend, I’d feel confident that I could get past it—and committed to taking care of myself to for my healing and overall well-being.

Mere hours later, I’d be curled up in bed with dirty, matted hair, drinking a mixed drink that was as strong as lighter fluid, sitting around feeling sorry for myself.

When I was overcoming my darkest depression, a few years after that, I stocked my shelves with self-help books (along with Ramen Noodles and Marlboros).

I must have had at least a dozen journals with exercises and notes, representing hours of self-reflection and analysis, yet days would go by when I wouldn’t do a single thing I wrote about.

I’d find excuses to stay alone, or stay bitter, or stay scared, or stay safe. Though I made some efforts to make changes in my life, I struggled to do anything positive regularly.

While I’ve made major progress with some of my biggest demons, I still go through times when I’m inconsistent with the things that I know serve me well.

In recent years, I’ve put a lot of effort into becoming more patient, and yet I still find myself rushing people and situations when I start to feel that familiar sense of anxiousness.

I know I feel better about myself when I’m more easy going—and that it’s kinder for the people around me—but I still struggle to apply what I’ve learned at times.

Since I want to continue making progress, I’ve put some thought into why it’s so hard to act on our knowledge, and how we can overcome internal resistance for lasting positive change.

1. Recognize the payoff in doing what you usually do.

We do things how we’ve always done them because there’s some type of pay off—something we think we gain—or something painful we think we avoid.

In some cases, this may be obvious, but sometimes we need to really dig beneath the surface to understand why we’re keeping ourselves stuck.

When I give in to impatience, it’s usually because this gives me a sense of control. It’s not so much that I don’t like to wait; it’s more that I dislike not knowing how long I’ll have to wait. That feels powerless to me, so I try to control the situation.

When we understand the payoff we’re seeking, and what we’re afraid of or trying to avoid, we’re better able to work with our own inner workings.

2. Acknowledge what you lose by doing what you always do.

Though there may be a payoff, clearly we’re also losing something, or else we wouldn’t want to change.

As I wrote in my book, Tiny Buddha, Psychologist Edgar Schein has identified three precursors to a change in behavior: a sense that the situation causes pain or dissatisfaction; survival anxiety, which is the awareness that you will be more uncomfortable if you don’t change; and psychological safety, which means that you feel safe to explore and make mistakes without fear of repercussions.

How will you be more uncomfortable for not making a change? What pain is this behavior causing you? Are you struggling financially because of it? Is it putting your health at risk and limiting your day-to-day joy? Are you feeling depressed, isolated, or lethargic?

When you get to that situation, when you want to do what you always do, recognize the emotional payoff—the thinking from step 1. Then take a deep breath and remind yourself that the consequences of doing what you always do are worse.

In my case, when I feel that out-of-control, impatient feeling, I remind myself, “If I rush right now, I will be inconsiderate of someone else and I’ll feel bad about myself. Patience may not come instinctively, but this is an opportunity to practice.”

3. Take every opportunity to practice, and take the pressure off.

Changing a behavior is about consistency. The more often we do something, the more instinctive it will become—and the better we’ll get at it. Think about working at it as often as possible, not doing it perfectly (whatever “it” may be).

Someone recently told me about an interesting study that involved two groups of students.

An instructor told the first group of students that they had to make one perfect vase, and told the other group to make as many vases as possible, without regard for how they turned out.

The group that made as many as possible ended up producing far superior work. Because they weren’t worried about perfection, they felt free to try new things and have fun with it—and through the process of pressure-free repetition, they naturally improved.

Think about applying what you know as a numbers game, and strive to do it more often than not. If you mess up, chalk it up to a learning experience and try again.

4. Change your inner monologue.

We all tell ourselves stories about the things we can and can’t do, and sometimes they can be paralyzing. The first step is recognizing our limiting thoughts, beliefs, and stories. The next part is replacing them with empowering ones.

So if you start thinking, “I can’t go out and meet new people. I never form any new relationships, so what’s the point?” replace that thought with, “I can meet new friends at any time if I’m open to it.”

It may seem like lying to yourself if you generally don’t believe it. You’re not. You’re entertaining a new thought so that you can form a new belief.

We tend to find evidence to back up what we think we know, thanks to our reticular activating system, which filters out stimuli that’s inconsistent with our beliefs, as a mental shortcut.

If you tell yourself something different, and look for evidence to back it up, you will start to change that filter, which will go a long way in tackling the internal resistance that keeps you from applying what you’ve learned.

In this way, you take what you know intellectually and transform it into something you fully believe.

5. Understand your triggers.

It’s easier to sustain a change if you anticipate challenges, and plan a way to overcome them.

For example, I know when I go to a doctor’s appointment I am likely going to feel that familiar sense of impatience bubbling up inside me.

This means I can go into it expecting to wait—and I can plan to use that time however I see fit, whether it’s relaxing with a magazine, writing in my journal, or simply doing nothing.

If you’re struggling to get over a breakup, identify the things that keep you stuck—looking at old pictures, talking to mutual friends, or whatever. Then plan to avoid triggers that are avoidable, and deal with unavoidable ones in a healthy way.

If you’re having a hard time changing your diet, recognize which things tempt you to make unhealthy choices—having certain food in the house, or getting a large portion at a restaurant. Then plan to tackle those triggers, by only buying healthy items, or by asking your waiter to put half your meal in a doggy bag in advance.

Whatever the case may be, knowing your triggers helps you work with them. 

6. Track your progress.

In a recent post about overcoming the fear of loss, I mentioned an interesting observation from a blog post on Money Ning.

Just as we don’t like losing time, money, or people and things we value, we don’t want to lose momentum.

If you create some type of tracking system, either a log in a journal, or a large calendar with stars with every improvement, you’ll create a psychological need to keep that streak going.

We live in a world where we have more access than ever to information, but it isn’t knowledge that creates change. It also isn’t wisdom or will.

Change entails intention and consistent effort. Consistency doesn’t mean perfection. It means trying over and over again, and learning something from every setback to create meaningful internal change.

When we create tiny shifts in our minds, we start seeing major shifts in our choices—and in our lives.

Photo by Moyan_Brenn

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Carmelo

    Sometimes we just don’t know that we know. You made so many good points, Lori. I find that when the pain of the current situation begins to subside, the pressure to effect change lessens and “oops!” the motivation wanes.

    Also, we can get comfortable with familiar pain and scared of new pain or the effort it takes to implement new thoughts or actions.

    I’ve found that what works best for me is a vigilant awareness. Constant observation of every emotion and action without a drop of judgment allows me to implement the steps you outline here. It might sound difficult to do this, and it does take practice, but it really is doable!

    Love your work, Lori. Thank you.

  • Joice

    My impatience is something that I really need to work on too. But there is also something else – bad moods and/or low energy for aparent no reason. Sometimes I think it is caused by hormones shifts, but even so, I would like to change that. Anyways, this post is really useful in trying to change.

  • msophelia

    this observation rings so true to me: ”
    When I give in to impatience, it’s usually because this gives me a sense of control. It’s not so much that I don’t like to wait; it’s more that I dislike not knowing how long I’ll have to wait. That feels powerless to me, so I try to control the situation.” my impatience has cost me, in a number of situations. next time, i’ll try thinking about the outcome, and see if that helps.

  • lv2terp

    This is a wonderful and helpful post (like all of them you produce!!! 😉 ). The patience comments describe me exactly, something I have been working on as well…it is nice to get these tips to really evaluate what lies that the core at the resistance or challenge of changing! Thank you for your wisdom! 🙂

  • What an insightful and honest article! So authentic is its revelations about how we approach ourselves and our desire to make changes. True change comes from that authentic and honest experience of identifying how and why we do what we do so we can do what we do differently next time 🙂

  • I’ve learned through life, and only come to really acknowledge now, that
    much of the pressure we feel is what we put on ourselves. The old adage “Fall
    down seven times, get up eight” and similar sayings that correlate this meaning
    are highly significant. However, each person manifests bouncing back differently
    at some personal particular point in time. What oft leads us astray is the
    feeling of urgency. Fall down, pick myself up, dust me off and get back in the
    saddle. For sure, do that. In your own time.

    Each time I participated in personal transformation courses or weekends I
    would come out flush with the excitement of “This time I’m gonna do it
    Each time I got bitch-slapped back into reality because what
    goes on in these transformational microcosms is rarely similar to real-life
    interaction. I was trained to forgive others and myself, buoy up my self-esteem,
    face my faults, maximize my potential and forge ahead. Then, sans the support
    system I enjoyed in that isolated environment, the heat of day quickly melted my
    euphoria into puddles of sobriety.

    None of what we learn in personal growth and transformation is wrong. What
    it does, though, is cause us each to beat ourselves down for not succeeding
    post haste. For not being accomplished enough. Even though we
    learned that such is not the case. We, in light of learning our star power,
    become our own harshest critics. “I know better than this. I can do
    more than this.”

    Yes. You can. If and when you put that knowledge into proper perspective in
    your individual timeline. “Thanks to our reticular activating
    we are in a position to adapt and adopt these changes into
    our lives. We can re-mold our brains, remodel our interiors. All, each, in due
    time. A beginning is the most delicate time to make sure that the balances are
    correct (paraphrase from Dune by Frank Herbert). After a lifetime, or many
    years, of travelling down one path the body, and mind, are going to persist in
    the old ways. How quickly we change is a one-size-fits-one deal. If I bend a
    willow branch or a reed quickly, I can snap either in two. If I flex either
    slowly I witness their innate ability to adapt. Such it is for me, I know. I
    have a feeling it is that way for many.

    Sorry about the length, Lori. I’m pretty passionate about giving myself a
    break and cellular memory. I’ve got more scar tissue than skin, so I play the
    plasticity card carefully. Thanks again for your provocation.

    ~ Mark

  • Thanks,this hit right home and now I know I am not alone in practicing new found healing knowledge a long time before a new habit is formed

  • Thanks Carmelo. I love what you wrote about vigilant awareness, and I think action without judgment is crucial (and yet oh so challenging sometimes!) Thanks for sharing your thoughts. =)

  • I have those same hormone shifts Joice. One week of every month is always lower than usual for me. I try to practice radical self-care during that week and just be good to myself (as opposed to getting down on myself, which I did for a very long time).

  • I’m glad this was helpful to you! I find just remembering how bad I’ll feel after helps me push through that anxious feeling. And deep breathing always helps, too.

  • Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it. =)

  • Thanks so much. I think it really all comes down to self-awareness…like you said, understanding why we do what we do, and changing internally to create change externally.

  • You’re most welcome. =)

  • I’ve had that same experience, with personal growth seminars, which is why I’m not really a big fan of them these days. I find that the real world is the best classroom when it comes to implementing change. And I’m always working to pressure myself less, since I know this doesn’t do me any good. Still, this is the hardest bit of knowledge for me to apply. It’s just so instinctive. I work at it!

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. =)

  • Michelle Arsenault

    It’s funny because I was just commenting to a friend recently that I’ve read so many help help/spiritual books and blogs with wonderful information – the problem was actually applying it to my life. In fact, that was the most frustrating part of this process. Although a huge part of me felt as though I had made progress and was on my way, my old habits, negative thoughts etc seem to fall back in line almost like a slap in the face. But you made some great points and once I change my habits, eventually they will become the new norm. Thank you.

  • Carmelo

    Yep, oh so challenging. Maybe that’s why we’re here, tho.

    (i need a hat like that!)

  • andrea

    good entry Lori…exactly what I could’ve expressed. I would’ve written years rather than days go by; we don’t always do better when we know better

  • Couldn’t read this at a better time. For so long, i knew what I can or should do to improve myself and my emotional well-being. I had gone through so many self-help books and whatnot, but I still struggled when it came to applying these things to myself. I kept making excuses.. and worst of all, I had so much resentment inside me. It was as if I was making this giant excuse as to why I’ll “never” improve.

    So a great friend of mine, who knows me better than anyone else, confronted me (for the lack of words) about this.. and told me that things will never change if I stay in the same rut I’ve been in for years. Things aren’t going to change if I’m going to continue to have the same ol’ (negative) mindset about things. Things aren’t going to change if I let my fears get in the way. Hell, things aren’t going to change at all if I keep wallowing in fear.

    So this was an excellent post. One of the best I’ve come across on this site. Very well appreciate it.

  • I love points 1 & 6. I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on why I shouldn’t continue certain habits, but not near enough time on what those habits give me. I think that not only will naming the benefit will make it less potent, but I can begin to look for it in a much healthier way.

    #6 is a must for me, which I recently, finally, realized. Without tracking (in any kind of manner) I found that I slowly stop doing what I should be. I’ve noticed that I get going on a new habit, build up confidence in myself, and I start thinking that I can do it without constant monitoring. But, that’s as far from the truth as I can get. Drinking 8 or 9 glasses of water a day, becomes 7, then 6 and so on. So, I agree, tracking and paying attention is a MUST.

    Great post!

  • I found the same thing, with tracking! When I see myself making progress, I feel good about myself and motivated to keep going. I’m glad you enjoyed this post! =)

  • That’s wonderful your friend was there for you in that way. I think that’s a sign of a good friend–when they’re willing to speak up and tell it like they see us to help. I’m glad you found the post helpful!

  • Thanks so much Andrea. I’m glad this helped!

  • You’re most welcome. I’ve thought that same thing many times before, especially since I read so many books with similar advice. The reading isn’t the hard part–it’s the doing, and consistently! I’m glad this was helpful to you. =)

  • Melody T.

    Thank you, Lori! I love your daily insights.

  • You’re most welcome!

  • Shajhai

    Dear Lori Deschene this is Shajhai from India i ve just gone through your “6 TIPS TO HELP YOU APPLY WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED” it was just like seeing myself in de mirror i was so excited and happy tat i could get some help 4m u… i ve tried self help books of Louise L.hay and sakthi gawain and some more,…. mainly was hit somewhere inside by Louise hay’ “YOU CAN HEAL YOUR LIFE”…but i am stuck up somewhere in the 4th point of ur topic could u plzzzzzzzzzz HELP me out of this hell… Thank u so much … so happy tat many ppl r out there 4 service… regards, Shajhai………………..

  • Shajhai

    true i just realised school or college or anythin else won teach us wat v really want in this world….. it is de courage 2 face things in de real world….!! rightly said!!!!

  • Shajhai

    “It might sound difficult to do this, and it does take practice, but it really is doable!” =honest ….. +1

  • Shajhai

    Thanks 4 all de ppl out ter….!!!!! i am so glad today as i see many ppl lik me i thought i would be de one suffered!! come on ppl!! somethin heavy 4m my heart is let dwn from this comment:)

  • Hi Shajhai,

    I’m glad this post was useful to you! How can I help?


  • Shajhai

    i am pulled by de negative wateva i try 2 do lik in de 4th point my heart s not believing wat i affirm in

  • Hi Shajhai,

    I understand. It can be tough to maintain a positive mindset, particularly when you’re going through hard times. There are a few posts on the site that may be helpful to you:

    I hope these help!


  • Shajhai

    Thank u lori ll try it out 🙂 thanks a lot

  • You’re most welcome!

  • Mandlenkosi Paul

    Hi Lori,
    I almost wanted to say that you were wrong, until I noticed that is actually what I do often. I tend to think I know everything there is to know about everything, but have no results with which to justify it. Application or doing is the way in which we demonstrate what we actually understand, understanding comes from development. What we hear may spark the light, but if we don’t apply and measure what we apply, we have no sense of near or how far we are from doing it. Making mistakes is merely a marker that we can choose to improve or do it better the next time around, finding instruction is only the beginning. Change must be manageable, if one from the beginning can only do it consistently for 5 minutes that’s OK, if 1 hour great, what matters is in a single success. That single success trigures the question of what else is actually possible, and the way of possibilities reveals itself. Eventually see and converting possibilities becomes less vague and unusual until it becomes our way of doing things. Success isn’t complete without record, that’s exactly what I was missing.