Master New Behaviors Through Micro-Practice

In brief: A lot of attention has been placed on micro-learning, but adopting new behaviors requires practice not simply memorization. Micro-learning must include micro-practice. Learning design must ask the learner to practice new target behaviors consistently over time in order to build a new ingrained behavior. We can only act our way into a new way of thinking. We cannot simply think our way into a new way of acting.

Micro-learning isn’t a new idea. In 1885 Herman Ebbinghaus conducted memory experiments to demonstrate that our memory of specific information and ideas declines rapidly if there is no reinforcement. He found that we forget 80% of new content and ideas after 30 days. He called it the “forgetting curve”, and went on to demonstrate that we can more easily remember facts and ideas if they are presented in more memorable formats (such as rhymes or mnemonics) or if the ideas are repeated and reinforced over time.

This isn’t anything new to us. Organizations have adopted micro-learning digital experiences to:

  • Ignite skills while reducing cognitive overload. Single concept lessons allow learners to focus on single, targeted ideas.
  • Right-sized content to modern learners. We’re distracted. In Josh Bersin’s often-shared infographic we see that the modern learner has just 1% of their workweek available to attempt to learn something new.
  • Thin-slice ideas to fit multitasking habits. Another thing we know from research is that multi-tasking is a myth. We don’t actually do multiple things at once. Instead, we thin-slice our tasks to switch between two or more activities in rapid succession. Micro-learning fits that mental design.

Mark Clare, adjunct professor of cognitive design at Northwestern University, says micro-learning works because it is more in line with how our brains perceive and store information, and as he describes “micro-lessons can be fused into work processes more easily.”

But what if we are trying to get people to change behavior, not just remember ideas? Becoming a better listener isn’t the same as remembering the periodic tables. Taking initiative in a meeting to share an audacious idea isn’t the same as remembering your Grandma’s recipe for apple pie. Personal change requires action and practice.

The best micro-learning design not only includes micro-practice, but also scaffolds each new practice in context. Each new learning practice should reinforce, and build, upon the previous behavior to create a lattice of new capabilities.

Adopting new behaviors requires practicing them, not simply being exposed to the new idea repeatedly in micro-learning formats. You don’t think your way into a new way of acting. You must act your way into a new way of thinking.


Our new micro-practice series from Mindscaling are designed in exactly this way. Five minutes of research-based content, and a micro-learning practice. Take a look at our new series based on the bestselling book Small Acts of Leadership.