Our biggest allies, or foes, in achieving our goals are the habits we develop, because our brains have a limited ability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. When we are learning something new, we need to use all that concentration. If there is another issue needing attention, our brain will use a combination of using all its energy on what is deemed the more important, or bounce back and forth between the items.
Automaticity, the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allows us to accomplish the great things humans do. We can, literally, walk and chew gum. Or, carry on a conversation while we walk, drive, ride a bike, stir a pot on the stove, or bounce a baby on our hip.
When we are learning a new language or a new way of communicating, such as reading, our brain is focused on interpreting individual words. We talk or read in a halting, disjointed manner. Comprehension is slow or completely lacking.
Typists understand this more than most people. They are involved in copying all the letters and spaces correctly and do not necessarily have much idea of what a document concerns. It is only when the typing becomes habitual that the typist might remember the fact that the quick red fox jumped over the sleeping brown dog, and even later that he might wonder under what circumstances such a thing could have happened. (Had he typed this only once, he might not have a memory of it.)
My fingers know how to type. They often pause when they have made a mistake. Because they realize it before my brain does, I have learned to ‘listen’ to my fingers and look for the error.
Automaticity comes from ‘overlearning.’ We accomplish the memorization, either mental or muscular, through practising well beyond the point of knowing how to do whatever we are practising. When we have learned them perfectly, we do not stop. We do them some more. We do them until we can do them without thinking until they seem completely natural. Until they are habitual.
Sometimes, we gain automaticity on purpose, sometimes it occurs because we like what we are doing over and over. The beauty of the habit is that we no longer have to think about it, we simply do it.
Unfortunately, it seems that helpful habits can be broken far more easily than unhelpful, even destructive ones. Once we do break a habit, it is harder to re-establish than it was to initially create.
I thought of this the other day when I was ironing while discussing something with Stan. Suddenly, I was aware that I had reverted to an older, established pattern of smoothing out a shirt. During my first year of college, I took a class that required us to find the most effective method of doing everyday activities. Usually, the most efficient way, the way that has the least number of steps, is most effective. I used the methods I had learned for all my chores, but recently revisited my method of ironing shirts. I wrote down the new steps and taped the sequence to the window frame above my ironing board. With my brain busy conversing about a technical matter, my hands reverted to the pattern they had practised for a gazillion years.
It was not an earth-shattering event, but it did get me thinking about the value of habit.
For many, many years I exercised during the early morning before the rest of the family awoke. It was quiet and I could concentrate on breathing and stretching in particular. This routine was interrupted for an extended period when I had a lumpectomy and radiation therapy for breast cancer, followed by a bout of pneumonia.
With great effort, I was finally able to get back into the practice. However, when I had a knee injury and stopped working out in the way I had, it was extremely difficult to reconvene the exercises, even though I am aware that they are essential to recuperation.
Except at the ski condo. Last year when I was at work, the alarm would go off, I would get up, make coffee, and stretch and work out. The habit still existed in that setting, because I had maintained the same morning routine from the time we first bought the condo. Apparently, although in our house the habit has shrivelled up and barely exists, there is a separate habit that has not diminished at all living at the mountain. It is, indeed, a separate entity, because the morning after we got home, I had to push and prod to make myself roll out the yoga mat.
A good habit makes life easier, and probably better. You can do things without thinking, and sometimes without being aware you have done them. You do not have to force or cajole yourself into doing something that you know is good for you or that you should do. You save all that stress and energy and have it to use for the activity itself.