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.

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