Habits can be good or bad. When good habits are applied to a craft they can lead to craftsmanship and when bad they can cause all sorts of problems for you. The repetition of habits leads to muscle memory. It moves conscious thought to the unconscious and allows you to respond automatically and without thought.
You can also use habits to modify your own behavior through small changes that move the habit to something more positive.
Building Muscle Memory Through Repetition and Habit
A few days ago I was listening to an episode of John Gruber’s Talk Show with Joanna Stern as guest for the week. I think it was Joanna that brought up a study in which people were asked to save a document using the keyboard (CTRL-S, CMD-S) or using a mouse and moving it to a menu to select to save the document.
The people who participated were asked which method they thought faster and they invariably chose the keyboard as the faster of the two. The data however, showed the mouse was actually the faster method.
If you use keyboard shortcuts like me, you might immediately think the study crazy and there’s no way the mouse was faster than the keyboard. The rationale was that keyboarders had to do two things. They had to think or remember the keystrokes and then physically perform the keystrokes. The mouse method had only the physical component.
I still have a hard time believing it. Maybe when you’re first learning a keyboard shortcut, having to think about it slows you down. Use them enough though, and those shortcuts become muscle memory. Do you really need to think CTRL+S or CMD+S? My brain thinks save and then my fingers save. Sometimes my fingers don’t even need to wait for my brain. They automatically save any time I stop writing for a moment.
The habit comes from my early college days at Drexel University. The computer system we used my freshman year had been greatly expanded since the previous year. The computers had grown from something like 15 or 20 to about 120. The problem was the network was only designed to handle the 15 or 20. If you were lucky you could write a line of code and save it before your terminal crashed. Some days you couldn’t even finish the line of code to make it to the saving.
A few years back I switched from using Windows machines to Macs. Right away I felt comfortable using the operating system, but it was about a week before I really felt productive. I had to relearn where keys were, find new ones, and replace shortcuts I could no longer use. It was a week to relearn muscle memory.
I find there’s always a short period of adjustment every time I use a new keyboard. My fingers reach too far or not far enough. I’ll make more mistakes initially, but within a few days the new muscle memory will have developed.
Similar things happened at a couple of jobs I had in the past. For one I worked in a picture framing shop. You bring in your artwork and we’d build the frame and put everything together. The way I had to hold the pieces of the frame when building them, was awkward at first. My fingers didn’t quite want to bend a certain way or have enough strength to hold the frame. In time and practice the muscle memory developed and the awkwardness went away.
At another job we made what I think was called a hakima (I’m probably getting that wrong). It was a heavy piece of cloth that I had to fold precisely. It was difficult. Again it took time to build strength in my hands. As part of the job we had to cut through pieces of rubber with a razor blade. I’d be all proud of myself for making it through in 15 or 20 cuts and my boss would come over and cut through in 2 or 3 cuts. Strength and muscle memory through repetition and habit.
Turning Good Habits into Craftsmanship
One reason you keep practicing and learning is to develop a craft. In many ways craftsmanship arises out of muscle memory and habit. The more you know and the more you practice what you know, the more it all becomes muscle memory. You don’t have to think about it. It’s something you can do automatically while you think about something else.
Where efficiency is concerned, it’s good to be able to take things you had to consciously think about and turn them into something that’s part of an automatic process. It can also improve quality. Assuming you developed good habits while practicing, the automatic parts will turn out well and they’ll free your mind to work on other things.
Again the quality comes from practicing “correctly” and through good habits. Otherwise it’s garbage in, garbage out. The better the practice, the better you’ll be when responding automatically.
To some degree we use tools for the same benefits. We offload some things to the tool so we don’t have to think about it. For example if you work with a code editor, it probably offers some kind of code completion. Instead of having to remember to close a tag, your editor does it for you. It saves time and saves you a little conscious thought.
None of this should be taken as an endorsment that thinking less is ok. The idea is really the opposite. It’s that making some things automatic allows you to have more room to think of other things and apply critical thought to them..
It’s the 10,000 hours things Malcolm Gladwell talked about. Regardless of the actual number of hours needed to become an expert, the general idea of putting in the time to practice well turns muscle memory into good habits, which eventually become craftsmanship and expertise.
Using Habits to Alter Behavior
You can also use habits to alter your behavior for the better. You never want to be locked into a single way of doing things. Everything changes. Everything needs to adapt. Everything needs to be adjusted.
Instead of seeing habits as something etched in stone, either there or not there, see them as something more malleable. Seem them as things you can bend and shape and generally control. You don’t have to make wholesale changes at once. Instead you can modify a habit so it’s one step closer to something more positive.
We all develop habits and while it would be nice to think they’re all good, we all have some bad ones. Like most, I’m a creature of habit, both good and bad. I used to let bad habits get me down and at times I’d be upset with myself for not being able to completely drop the habit.
I’ve found instead that for me it works better to use habits to generate positive change in an iterative process. I make a small change to the habit. It’s small enough that it’s easy enough to do and make stick. Little by little the habit becomes something more desired.
For a simple example, say you want to wake up an hour earlier than usual. Odds are you wake up to the alarm at the same time every day or on your own around the time the alarm is about to go off.
Set your alarm to ring five minutes earlier than usual. The five minute change isn’t a big difference to your body. You should get used to the new time quickly. Maybe you’re groggy for a day or two and then you adjust.
Once you’re waking up five minutes earlier without trouble, set the alarm another five minutes earlier and go through the adjustment period again. Within a few months you should be waking up an hour earlier than when you started and it shouldn’t feel like any extra effort. The whole process shouldn’t feel like it was too much effort at all.
You’re making controlled evolutionary changes as opposed to one quick revolutionary change. The general idea is to:
- Observe how you naturally do something
- Turn it into some kind of repeatable process by finding patterns and making them more deliberate
- Observe where you are and where you want to be
- Make small adjustments in the attributes of your habit that take it closer to your desired outcome
Turn things into repeatable habits. Then change attributes of the repetition. Change the time between or time spent in each repetition. Change how your hand holds the paint brush by a small amount. Concentrate on not using an overused word when writing. Make an effort to improve one line of code you commonly include in projects.
Turn the whole thing into a process you can iterate toward a desired outcome. Because the change is slow the good habits you develop along the way tend to have greater odds of sticking.
It’s possible you might not iterate your habit toward the “correct” way. In those cases you’ll get better at your way. The consistent practice will make whatever and however you’re doing something easier and quicker. You’re going to get better at something. Maybe some of the times you aren’t better at doing something correct, you’re developing personality and voice. You find a way to make your way work that others haven’t repeated enough to do as well.
Ideally you’d be developing good habits. The way you practice and the routines and processes you develop, are going to become muscle memory. They’re going to become automatic. You want your muscle memory to be doing things the right way most of the time, though sometimes it’s ok to go your own way.
When you develop good habits, it has a nice side effect in that it improves your work on days when you’re less than your best. A sloppy job is relative to your usual job. If your usual is excellent due to quality practice and good habits, then your sloppy job is probably still pretty good.
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