Then dust yourself off and try again

As I endeavour to write an article for this week’s blog post, the chorus line “If at first you don’t succeed, then dust yourself off and try again” is on repeat in my head. Apparently, Aliyah’s song “Try Again” was originally written to inspire people. Even though the lyrics became love-themed, the melody and hook remained the same…

And if at first you don’t succeed
Then dust yourself off and try again
You can dust it off and try again
‘Cause if at first you don’t succeed
You can dust it off and try again
Dust yourself off and try again

Given the hypnotically catchy melody and inspirational lyrics, I chose to write about the key role that failures play in triggering our brains to change. Yes, that’s right. Failures and errors help us learn faster! This applies to learning movements themselves (like exercise-based movements), and for allowing us to learn non-movement-based information (like how to adjust nutrition and eating habits to get cravings in check).

Under the right conditions, mistakes trigger and even amplify neuroplasticity, which is “the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience“.

The purpose of this blog article is to shed some light on the various factors that contribute to learning new behaviors, with a special focus on the metabolic detective skills that our clients learn in the Metabolic Optimization Health Coaching Program.

As a metabolic detective, the first skillset we teach is biofeedback awareness. Enter SHMEC.

As coaches, we help people understand their body’s biofeedback and what it means in the context of their metabolism and health goals. Then, we teach people how to adjust their plan accordingly. We do all of this using a simple, yet powerful acronym: SHMEC.

Note: If you haven’t been following our blog series on SHMEC up until this point, you should go back and read our other blogs posted thus far. 

Think of SHMEC as a window into your metabolism, or a way to assess hormonal balance. Of course, we always need the client’s help throughout the detective process. We want our clients to continue to succeed after the program ends.

So how do we do this? How do we set our clients up for future success?

Failures! Not always, of course. That would be discouraging. But certainly, trial and error is part of the learning process. While attempting to learn something new, most of us humans struggle and make mistakes. Although frustrating, this agitation is exactly what our brains need in order to change. The brain doesn’t just change in response to any ol’ experience. Why would it? There’s no reason to change if everything is fine and dandy. But, behaviours will change your brain if there is a feeling of frustration from making errors. And, more importantly, if we continue to engage with the new information/task that we’re trying to learn (both movement and non-movement based information). Meaning, we need to stay engaged and complete the task, or repetitively work towards something while making errors, despite the frustration.

Failure triggers specific plastic changes in the brain because discomfort is a strong signal to modify, change, and adapt. Without that signal, the brain thinks everything is good. No need to do anything. Why waste the energy? The brain is a funny place.

Learning movements

In any case, we can use this information to our advantage by acknowledging that failures are helpful. This mindset shift alone does wonders for motivation. I know it helped me! I experienced this feeling of frustration last week during my first tango dance lesson. While practicing the basic beginner step – Basic 8 Count to the Cross, I made many errors. For a whole hour, I danced in a box with two left feet. Following each error, there was an attempt to correct the behaviour, although not always successfully. As someone who doesn’t like to make mistakes, this was incredibly frustrating. Then, to my surprise several days later, the step came naturally during an impromptu dance session at home with my partner.

What can we learn from this experience?

We need the right conditions if we’re going to leverage errors for learning. Those conditions include timing, sleep and mental state.

  • Timing: Research shows that timing our learning is important. Start with 7-minute, 12-minute or 30-minute learning cycles. We learn best in cycles. Completion of a task, or repetitively working towards something while making errors, is best done in shorter cycles (especially in human brains aged 25 years and up). During this time, you’re not deliberately trying to make errors. You’re trying your best, but you’re failing. During those 7-minute, 12-minute or 30-minute blocks of time that you’re making these errors, you’re going to feel frustrated. That feeling triggers the release of chemicals that cue your brain to change.
  • Sleep: Quality sleep is necessary for the consolidation of new information. During sleep, auto-replay of skill learning occurs. If you don’t sleep well, take a nap to enhance the learning. Provided that doing so doesn’t negatively impact your sleep later.
  • Mental state: The other important piece is your mental state. We need a bit of arousal (feeling stressed, agitated, etc), but we also need to feel calm enough to be focused. There’s a middle ground between feeling frustrated/anxious and calm (yet alert) that we need to strike for optimal learning.

This applies to learning movements themselves, such as dancing or the exercise movements that Dr. Jade Teta takes us through in Metabolic Prime or Metabolic Renewal. But this also applies to learning non-movement-based information (like how to adjust nutrition and eating habits to get SHMEC in check).

Learning non-movement-based information

Now, let’s return to our discussion on SHMEC. As mentioned earlier, think of SHMEC as a window into your metabolism, or a way to assess hormonal balance. Your body is constantly communicating with you through cues such as hunger, energy and cravings (HEC). If you’re craving something, is it because you’re hungry, frustrated, bored, or lacking a nutrient in your diet? Without trial and error, you won’t learn how to read your metabolism or its clues, and you certainly won’t learn how to adjust your diet and lifestyle to bring your biofeedback into balance.

We can leverage errors for learning non-movement-based information, like how to get SHMEC in check, by applying the same conditions listed above for learning movements.

  • Timing: Pick a behaviour that you’re trying to change, and engage with that behaviour change for 7-30 minutes every single day for a week (or longer if desired). Depending on the behaviour, you might be attempting to complete a task, or repetitively working towards some goal while making errors or failing. For example, if your cravings are not in check, you might spend a single 7-minute learning cycle engaged in a non-food behaviour, like walking, to assess the impact of movement on your cravings. Maybe you battle intense cravings for crisps the entire time. Maybe you experience a decrease in the intensity of your cravings after 3-minutes. TBD! Stay with it, and use the information you learn to modify your behaviour next time. For example, using the same scenario, you might learn that a 30-minute walk is needed to decrease cravings. Or, maybe the walk is not sufficient because your cravings are related to under eating and you’re simply hungry.
  • Sleep: Quality sleep is under rated and under appreciated, but absolutely necessary for metabolic health and hormonal balance, especially if HEC is out of check. If, for whatever reason, you can’t get the zzz’s you need or want, then you can still leverage rest! Strategically insert periods of non-sleep rest during your day. Even a few minutes is helpful. Or, you can take short naps of 30-minutes or less (if that is appropriate or desired).
  • Mental state: Before learning or engaging in a new task, ask yourself these questions. Am I too calm or too tired/sleepy, and I need to be more alert? Or, am I too anxious or too agitated, and I need to be more calm? Finding that middle ground will bring you to an optimal starting position in order to engage in the metabolic detective process.

And with that, I leave you with Aliyah’s beautiful and inspiring words of Try Again, because…

” … if at first you don’t succeed
Then dust yourself off and try again
You can dust it off and try again
‘Cause if at first you don’t succeed
You can dust it off and try again
Dust yourself off and try again.”

Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash