Muscle Memory

April 8, 2011

I always reach to turn the light on when I enter the bathroom. I don’t think, my hand simply stretches for the switch.

This is muscle memory. Theoretically it frees up brainspace that could be doing more important things. We have a lot of biological functions that are taken care of by muscle memory — things we could control if we so desired, but which continue to happen even if they’re not at the forefront of our consciousness, just to ensure we keep, you know, living: breathing, blinking, moving, sleeping, and the like.

We also have habits taken care of by muscle memory that aren’t quite biological, but similarly fade from active attention. My bathroom-light movement is one. I also always drop my keys on a table inside the door to my apartment as soon as I enter. I often reach for my phone when I find myself with an idle moment. The routes of my former morning and evening commutes were more or less set in stone, and I can make a loaf of bread without ever really thinking about what I’m doing — my arms seem quite capable of completing the task independently, without having to exchange pleasantries with my brain.

The thing is though, there is a great big window in my bathroom that lets in beautiful light during the day. The light is soft and even and calming, and I really enjoy it.

And yet every time I enter the room — day or night — I move to flip the switch, overriding that lovely light with the harsh, excessive glare of the compact fluorescents in the lighting fixture. The extra lumens don’t make it easier to see or help me in any way, shape, or form; they’re just extra electrons flowing through wire, unnecessarily eating away at the planet and my electric bill. Yet still I reach.

And (somewhat scarily) it was only about a month ago when, for the very first time, I realized I didn’t NEED to reach. Out of the blue one day the thought popped into my head, “I don’t have to do this.”

I don’t have to do this.

I’m only doing it because it’s what I usually do. My brain is trying to outsource its busywork.

How many other activities to I engage in every day simply out of muscle memory? How many of them aren’t actually necessary? Aren’t actually benefiting me in any way? How many could be made more effective, efficient, or enjoyable by paying them a bit of attention every once in awhile?

I’ve already started working on not reaching for that light, but 20 years of practicing an action allows a person’s neural pathways to dig deep grooves. Re-routing takes some time and is a work in progress — sometimes my arm still gets its way, and I just have to send it back to turn it off. I’ll get there.

I also unsubscribed from one of my favorite blogs. It was one of the first I came across last year, and it was a life-changer. It revolutionized my sense of control over my own life, and I’ve made huge personal, professional, and financial strides because of the material. But it’s been several months since I felt enlightened by a post. Perhaps the writer is in a bit of a slump, or I might just be growing in a different direction than the author. Regardless, I continued to spend somewhere between five and fifteen minutes every day reading the daily posts. Until I realized I didn’t have to.

So I stopped.

I also stopped washing my baking pans in the dishwasher — even though it’s supposed to be one of those wonderful time-savers of our technological age, too often I end up having to wash the pans by hand anyways when the dishwasher doesn’t get all the gunk. It’s easier and faster to just do it myself from the get-go and simply know that it’s fine — no second pass required. Ever.

Now I’m not saying habits and muscle memories are bad, that we should constantly be thinking about every single thing we’re doing. That would be silly. The table where I drop my keys is the absolute perfect place for them — I never, ever have to scramble to find them. My commuting route was established after several months of experimenting to find the most bike-friendly path, and it’s helpful to be familiar with its nuances — I know where the big potholes are, when to expect cabbies or buses to cut me off, and how to best escape to Plan B when 5th Avenue is just too crazy.

What I am saying is that it’s worth checking in every once in awhile. Take inventory and make sure everything is running as it should. Good habits can make life run efficiently and smoothly, but bad ones can waste time and dull an experience. Sometimes a habit is so ingrained and automatic you really don’t even realize you’re doing it. But once you notice that bathroom light and have that first moment when you just have to smack your head and say, “Well that was painfully obvious,” the rest becomes easier.

Like a manager overseeing a team of employees, let a portion of your brain be aware of the bigger picture. That one small part should keep tabs on all the disparate departments — the part of you focused on on the minuscule details of your current project at work, the part that would like to improve family dynamics at home, the part that pulls out your keys when you get to your car, the part that keeps track of your dearest hope and dreams. Like a good manager, this overseeing section doesn’t have to be all up in everyone’s business all the time, but has a guiding hand on both the part of you that enjoys the sunlight and the part that reaches for the switch.

Communication and awareness — even just among your different selves — goes a long, long way toward satisfaction, effectiveness, and success.

False Comparisons

April 2, 2011

The odds of becoming a professional athlete are 25,000 to 1.

The odds of becoming an astronaut are 12,000,000 to 1.

The odds of winning an Academy Award are 12,000 to 1.

We all grow up hearing these ridiculous statistics, which are generally paired with the unspoken advice, “So don’t even bother. It’s not worth the time or energy, and you’ll inevitably end up disappointed. Worse, you’ll inevitably disappoint.”

It’s not done maliciously. Instead, the approach is framed as one of “realism.” Dreams are good… but not if they get in the way of reality. Consider the stars… but keep your feet on the ground, please. This is how you raise a “well-balanced” little person.

And it’s damn effective. Because alongside these wild facts, we’re also taught to revere numbers. To trust them. To have faith in them.

What we are not taught is how to look at them correctly. We’re not taught that even these comfortable, cold, hard facts can be (and almost always are) presented with a spin that drastically affects perception. If you tell a patient their surgery has a 5% mortality rate, they’re significantly more likely to refuse the treatment than if you instead offer that 95% of patients survive. The New York Times recently published an article boldly claiming that blogging is dying, and the piece made viral-esque rounds around the Internet. Few people noticed though that only one number cited was actually a statistically significant decline (blogging among 12-17 year olds, with the noted caveat that even this may be an issue of semantics) — the majority of the figures mentioned were actually increasing. The words surrounding numbers tend to carry a much stronger message than the numbers themselves.

So back to the long odds.

We’re given these numbers and their implicit don’t-even-bother story, but too many people — often impressionable, uncertain young adults on the cusp of independence, grasping for guidance from those around them — don’t see their real significance.

Life isn’t just a lottery. You don’t have the same shot at becoming an astronaut as every person who’s ever been born — you have the same chance as the people who work as hard and as smart as you. Of the 12 million people cited up top, 10 million are complete non-players — they’d rather be teachers or doctors or forest rangers or wine tasters and they have their own competition to worry about. Boom, gone. Another 1.9 million realize somewhere between fifth-grade math and Calculus III that their dreams lie elsewhere. 99% of the competition is already out of the picture.

Of the 1% left, it’s the people at the library during lunch, on the tennis court at 5am, or in their office at 9:30 on a Friday night who succeed. It’s the people who take care to learn about all the myriad elements that contribute to success in their given field — I’ll tell you right now that in this realm, some of the most important ones are not the most obvious ones, and some of the most obvious ones are actually a complete waste of time. It’s the people who embrace that they’re not the best, and therefore recognize their need and capacity to improve — and then do something about it.

These are not obscure hoops to jump through. There is a base amount of work and a base amount of sacrifice that will eliminate a huge majority of your “competition.”

Granted, overcoming the few who are left (if “overcoming” is actually necessary — most situations are not actually one-or-the-other scenarios) will require a whole other ballgame. But that’s the fun game — where innovation happens and fulfillment is found.

The up-front work is vital though, and letting scary numbers get in the way is silly and detracts from the real issues. Not everyone wants the same thing as you and most people won’t do the work to get it, so don’t burden yourself with unnecessary worry about “the masses” on your way up — that brainpower could be much better utilized on your real priorities.