We tend to think of habits as bad things, like smoking or saying “you know” incessantly. Our new year’s resolutions often focus on these bad habits and strategies we can employ to break them.
At their most elemental level, however, habits can actually be handy tools to help us manage all the tasks and information we must navigate to live in our complex modern day world. They act much like shortcuts on a computer desktop. With one mental click, habits get us where we need to be. Habits complete tasks efficiently that, without those habits, would take several more mental clicks to accomplish. For instance, how many of us, when we come to a red light, go through the following mental process?
- A red light means I must stop the car.
- I must take my right foot off the accelerator pedal.
- I must move my right foot to the brake pedal.
- I must push the brake pedal with my right foot.
- I must keep pressure on the brake pedal until the light turns green.
No. I’d venture to bet that, for most of us, the concept of braking when we see a red light is so habitual, we are able to stop the car almost unconsciously when we see a red light. This braking habit saves us mental energy and, arguably, even makes us safer drivers.
You may argue that our brains can complete the above braking analysis so quickly that not much is gained in the habit process. The fact is, though, that our habits take us on so many of these shortcuts, the cumulative benefit can certainly be significant.
Recently, something happened at my water aerobics class that reminded me of this. Several months ago, the turbo-charged octogenarian who teaches the class broke her ankle. She was not able to teach the class. The usual substitute teacher also had some serious medical issues keeping her away from the pool. Another lady, Mary, had been attending the class, doing the same routine of exercises, for more than a decade. She generously agreed to take over the leadership responsibilities.
Everything went well until the day Mary didn’t show up for class. All of a sudden, there were a dozen people calling out bits and pieces of direction. Everyone seemed to be communicating a different order of the exercises. No one was in charge and everyone was in charge. We were all spinning about, listing around in the water, doing some version of the exercises most of us have been doing between one and three times a week for years. We looked like an aquatic version of the keystone cops. While I contend that it really doesn’t make a lot of difference what particular actions we do during water aerobics class as long as we are moving, the chaotic spectacle we presented that day was still a bit alarming. To say nothing of the danger of drowning.
When I arrived at the pool for the next scheduled class, I was the only one present. I checked the clock and saw that it was only about ten minutes before start time. Normally, there are several people paddling about in the water by that time. I wondered if I had somehow missed the memo that class was cancelled for some reason. I figured, as long as I had roused myself from bed and was already there, I might as well try to go through the routine on my own. After all, I could hardly do worse than in our previous class led by the Committee of Confusion.
Before long, a few more people wandered onto the pool deck, but it was obvious that the last session’s debacle had motivated the majority of water babies to stay home and wait it out until they heard through the grapevine that Mary was back. Mary still had not appeared just a few minutes before the class was scheduled to begin. One of our few regular gentleman participants, Bob, stepped gingerly out of the locker room. Our male attendees are, for the most part, an extremely quiet bunch. They are faithful and disciplined in their approach to the class. They tend to huddle together and plow ahead with each exercise, trying to ignore the din of female chattering invading towards them from the other end of the pool. You would think, given the attention that these guys actually pay to what they are doing, one of them would be a fine candidate to take the rest of us dilettantes in hand. Bob, however, is a pretty reserved, introverted kind of guy. I am convinced that he has lived in fear of being pressured to lead the class ever since our go-to gal broke her ankle. I get it because I feel the same way. I watched Bob scan the attendance in the pool, desperately looking for Mary. Not seeing her, he took an instinctive step back, obviously getting ready to make a break for it back into the men’s locker room where he would be safe from pursuit.
Just as I saw Bob flinch towards the locker room, Mary appeared. We were safe from disorderly water aerobic conduct! Bob visibly relaxed and got into the pool. Mary started the class in the familiar way and we were off to the races. The entire atmosphere of tension disappeared and we began to move about the pool with more dignity and grace than the previous session. We were all doing pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time. Maybe we didn’t look like the Russian synchronized swimming team, but we were at least managing to do water jumping jacks without causing a five-person pile-up in the shallow end of the pool. I smiled to myself and thought, “I’m so glad Mary is back and we have a leader to make sure we keep on track.” After all, I am that kind of person. I don’t exactly belong in the men’s silent, disciplined huddle of water exercisers, but I get a little anxious when the chatter and disorganization of my side of the pool teeters from “fun” to “frenetic.”
I was so sure the improvement in the general flow and organization of the class was because Mary was there to give directions. As the class continued, however, I realized something. Mary was saying almost nothing. She started us off and kept pushing rhythmically through the routine, but she was, in reality, giving no directions. Even so, we were all happily hopping and bopping our way through the exercises in reasonable unison.
How was this happening?! How could a bunch of people who could barely dodder through twenty minutes of forty-five minutes worth of exercises without a leader a couple of days earlier now whoosh through the entire class together, supplemented only by an almost silent leader? Then I realized Mary’s true leadership quality. By eliminating the tension we experienced because of being leaderless, she allowed us to stop thinking and analyzing about what we were supposed to do. Her calm presence gave us permission to just relax and replace the slower, less accurate thought processes with the power of the force of habit.
It is amazing how much more capable we can be WITHOUT thinking.
Do you have any activities that you are able to accomplish on “auto-pilot?” Do you think you are more effective when you do them from “force of habit” or when you think more deliberately about what you are doing? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a great day!