Don’t Despair, Understand the 3 Stages of Learning

My client Andrea was distraught. “I promised to enjoy my life more this year. But this week, all I’ve done is stress out over the report I have due tomorrow.”

“Actually,” I replied. “I’m happy to report that you’re making progress.”

What Andrea didn’t know–and chances are you don’t either–is that learning happens in three phases. The first is called post hoc, meaning after the fact you recognize that you wanted to do it differently. This is the “I told myself last week I would remember to be patient with my mother” stage, the “I just remembered I was going to check for jobs on yesterday” stage. Believe it or not, learning is happening because before this, you’re not aware enough to know what’s going on at all.

The second is ad hoc, meaning while it’s happening, you’re aware you want to do it differently. That’s where another client, Sandy, is in her anger-management learning curve: “As I was about to yell at my husband, I thought to myself, walk away, walk away. Then I thought, screw it, and let him have it right between the eyes.” This is the “I shouldn’t buy this cookie (wine, pair of $200 pants, etc.) but I’m going to anyway” stage, the “I should turn off this computer and spend more time with my family but I’m still sitting here” stage.

The third is pre hoc, which means that you’ve learned it so well that you’ve got it in place before anything happens. “You’ll be proud of me,” reported Lucy, who’d been learning about becoming more organized. “I vowed to keep my house clean through the holidays and I did it, no problem!” This is when you’re doing exactly what it is you want to on a regular basis, with more successes than mistakes.

Here’s the dirty little secret: You’ve got to pass through stages one and two to get to three. It’s just how learning happens. And it can feel like you’re making no progress at all because by definition you are exquisitely aware of how and when you’re blowing it.

This is crucial to understand: Recognizing you’ve blown it is progress! Now comes the delicate part. Whether you move forward has everything to do with how you treat yourself once you notice you’ve blown it. The trick is to learn from the experience without judging yourself negatively so you don’t get discouraged and give up.

Here’s what I teach my clients to say to themselves: “Great. I’m learning. Otherwise I wouldn’t even notice I’ve screwed up. What can I take from this experience for next time?” We can move change. But only if we’re willing to treat ourselves encouragingly so that we keep our spirits up, remind our brains that we are making progress, and mine our experiences for tomorrow’s efforts.

To Try:
Where are you in the learning process? Post hoc? Ad hoc? Pre hoc? Wherever you are is okay, as long as you recognize it’s a stage of learning so you keep your spirits up.

In this monthlong learning series, M.J. Ryan, author of the best-selling book This Year I Will…: How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream Come True, will take you through four steps, each lasting one week, to help you figure out what your most important intentions are and give you the tools to make each a reality. Just joining the learning series? Go here to start at the beginning. provides content and community for who you aspire to be–personally, socially and globally.
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Michele Wilkinson

Thank you

David M.
David M.5 years ago


Anne F.
Anne F.5 years ago

Great cheering article. This is good advice that will help us become better at what we want to do and be.

Vural K.
Past Member 6 years ago


Allison Clark
Allison Clark6 years ago

Great article!
I find it really motivating to keep a chart of my progress. Even it is small... I write down( usually in my day timer or journal) how I have move forward with my intention.

I can relate to the procrastination- I have made huge leaps with charting my off time and maximizing my work time to chunks of 30 minutes.
Thanks, again for a wonderful article.

Diane G.
Diane G.6 years ago

I didn't know this. I feel so much better. I have been beating myself up so much.

B. Maria H.
Bernadette H.6 years ago

Oh thank you!
I feel so much better, and I can hardly wait to tell my teenage son too!

Lesley Bulman
Lesley Bulman6 years ago

oops, please disregard below comment.

I thought this article was I understand the process of learning and I won't be so hard on myself!

Anne T.
Anne T.6 years ago

Wow, this was SO helpful to me right now. I'm trying to overcome procrastination, and it's been rough. Normally, when I blow it, I'm very, very hard on myself. This article made me feel much better about my progress. Thank you!

Joyce Taron
Joyce Taron6 years ago

This is so encouraging to me as one who works with children. Thank you!