June 26, 2018

The dream: We could all pick up a new task or greet a fresh curveball perfectly from the start. But in reality, learning something new tends to require some heavy mental lifting.

Whether it’s a new project at work, a fresh fitness routine, or life’s latest unexpected zigzag, it can take days, weeks, or even months to move the needle even slightly from “Nope, don’t got this” to “I kind of got this.”

And that process? It can feel pretty discouraging—but studies show that when learning feels tough, that’s when the lesson makes the most impact.

“The same way that you need a hard workout to increase your fitness, learning needs to feel strenuous in order to stick,” Mary Slaughter and David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a research-backed behavior change company, explain in a piece for Fast Company. “It shouldn’t be a breeze.”

When learning feels tough, that’s when the lesson makes the most impact.

Why? Slaughter and Rock explain that when learning is challenging, we have to pay more attention—a process that causes our brains to build “stronger connections between neural networks.” This process then makes it easier for us to recall the lesson or revisit the skill later on. They call this type of active learning “desirable difficulty.”

“The reality is that to be effective, learning needs to be effortful,” they explain. “That’s not to say that anything that makes learning easier is counterproductive–or that all unpleasant learning is effective. The key here is desirable difficulty. The same way you feel a muscle ‘burn’ when it’s being strengthened, the brain needs to feel some discomfort when it’s learning.”

I’ve experienced this firsthand.

In the past year, I’ve auditioned to join an improv company twice—and was promptly rejected twice. While it hurt, and it took time to heal, I committed myself to learning how to listen more intently to my scene partners, get out of my own way when conjuring new ideas, and, most importantly, how to stay present while performing.

It’s been a rough road—but with each piece of feedback and training session, I’m learning to be more present with the moment, myself, and the people around me. And the lessons I'm learning? They're definitely sticking.

If you’re working on something new and you feel like the obstacles are insurmountable, try doing these few things to embrace the challenge and shift your perspective:

1. Own Your Ambition

Accept that the task is difficult—and take pride in your ambition to take it on. Yes, if it were easy, you’d get through it smoothly—but you’d have a tougher time recalling the knowledge you acquired. Own your choice to grow in new ways.

2. Notice the Little Growth

When we’re feeling discouraged, our emotions can keep us from being present as we learn. Even if things feel tough, challenge yourself to look up. Take in all that’s happening.

Notice the little ways you might be growing. Notice the blockers you’ve already pushed past—and the new ones you’re tackling. Instead of simply seeing an uphill climb, invite yourself to get curious and take in all that’s happening.

When we’re feeling discouraged, our emotions can keep us from being present as we learn.

3. Don't Be Afraid to Mix It Up

Focus is helpful—but don’t be afraid to change your methods. Shake up how you approach the subject, task, or challenge to find new ways of learning.

In my quest to be better at comedy, I've started taking a class that combines yoga, mindfulness, and improv. It’s kicking my butt. Holding a downward dog isn’t easy for a person of my size, but I get better with each class—and it’s helping me get better on stage, too. The class helps me learn in a new way but with the same goal in mind: to be more present, intentional, and grounded.

Find the method that works for you, but don’t be afraid of switching things up.

4. Know You’re Not Alone

We all are on the struggle bus when we make sincere attempts to learn something new. Reach out to a close friend, tell them about what you’re going through, and let them know how they can cheer you on.

5. Remind Yourself Why You Started

I signed up for my first improv course because I knew I wanted to explore my creative side. When things get tough, it helps to remind myself why I started in the first place.

Think back to why you embarked on your new journey. Ask yourself: Why do I want to see this through? Hone in on your why—and use it as a reminder when things feel discouraging.

Ask yourself: Why do I want to see this through?

Someone once told me that we grow every time we go through something tough. The same is true for when we’re working so desperately to level up and improve. Growth isn't easy. Just remember: You’re on the right track. Stick with it.

Read next: How Committing to a Challenge Can Change Your Perspective