Use deliberate practice to change habits and dissolve procrastination
If you could intentionally learn to enjoy any task, you will have mastered one of the key ideas of joyful productivity: being able to do what is important, no matter what it is, with a consistency of joy.
Let’s start with the idea of Muscle Memory.
I can walk and talk at the same time. I was born with neither ability.
With practice, you can learn to type without having to look at each letter.
With practice, you can learn any sport you’re interested in, even though it requires the coordination of dozens of muscles in very quick instants.
These are all examples of #MuscleMemory.
Through intentional repetition, any behavior or habit can become *instinctual* for you.
I wanted to try occasionally brushing my teeth with baking soda & salt, but every time I am about to brush my teeth, I instinctually reach for the toothpaste and put it on… and then later, I realized I missed another chance to brush with baking soda.
So I used this idea of muscle memory to break that pattern: I purposefully went into the bathroom, picked up my toothbrush, and then touched the baking soda jar.
Then I repeated this simple exercise:
I walked out of the bathroom, then walked back in, picked up toothbrush, touched baking soda jar.
I did this one more time.
The next morning, when I started to brush my teeth, I suddenly noticed a moment of choice before picking up my toothpaste — I realized I was now *consciously aware* for a few seconds and could choose whether to use the baking soda or toothpaste in that moment.
In other words, I had successfully inserted a conscious moment of choice within a pattern of behavior that had been habitual, instinctual, for thousands of days. And this was all with 3 minutes of intentional practice!
This is a very exciting idea — any behavior you want to chance, you can, by doing the following:
Step 1: Decide what the new behavior is, in detail.
Step 2: Intentionally practice that new behavior now.
Step 3: Repeat that practice 3–10x.
By doing this, you will have inserted a new moment of choice into what was previously autopilot musle memory.
When I walk into the kitchen, I frequently am used to opening to snack cupboard and eating some junk food. It’s become habitual.
With deliberate practice for just 3 minutes, I can break that pattern:
I practice walking into the kitchen and past the snack cupboard, and instead open the refrigerator and get a carrot. Then I put it back, walk out of kitchen.
Repeat the process 3–5x.
I will now have a moment of conscious choice when I walk into the kitchen in the future, and because of muscle memory, I will feel instinctually led to go to the fridge and get a carrot.
When I pick up my phone, I naturally want to go and surf Facebook, and can lose track of time.
Deliberate practice: Pick up phone, open the Calendar app, and think for a moment about my next appointment or task. (Or if it’s for leisure, open the Kindle app and read a book for a minute.) Put down phone. Then repeat that exercise 3–5x. I will now have broken an unhelpful instinct, and will have begun a new behavior, thanks to intentional repetition and muscle memory.
Practice can create any new way of being.
It’s your turn:
Think about a habit you want to break, or a new habit you want to form.
What’s the initial action that would get you into the flow?
Get clear in your mind (or write down) what that detailed initial behavior is.
Plan to practice that action today at least 3x to start forming muscle memory of that new behavior.
Let me know how it goes for you by commenting below.
Using this technique, even fear can be dispelled.
The psychologist Albert Bandura conducted laboratory studies that demonstrated that someone fearful of snakes can, through gradual and repeated exposure, become fine with snakes, handling them with no problem… without any hypnosis, completely conscious.
One important nuance of the study is that the phobic patients began by watching movies of other people who are unfearful when handling snakes, and then, the intentional and progressive exposure to the behavior became possible.
So that may be true for you as well:
When you think of a task you hate, such as taxes, could you imagine — see a movie in your mind — of a zen master like Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron approaching their taxes with a mindful breath, even a joyful ease?
Or think of me as this is something I have actually practiced: Opening my spreadsheet for doing taxes, intentionally breathing and putting a gentle smile on my face, and intentionally being grateful for each line item, thinking about the importance or necessity of each item, even marveling at it.
Here are the steps, revised for overcoming negative emotional associations of any task:
Step 1: Imagine in your mind (or write down if it’s easier) a scene in which you are doing the task without any negative emotions, but instead, doing it in a way that you would enjoy, e.g. with a mindful breath, gentle smile, a sincere appreciation of the opportunity to do that task, with a marveling at the details, or in a joyful service to your growth and/or to the greater whole.
Step 2: Intentionally practice that behavior and mindset now.
Step 3: Repeat the practice 3–10x.
In this way, you can change your relationship to any task that you wish you could do more consistently, but have been held back emotionally/mentally.
- Perhaps you’ve wanted to make regular videos like I do, but you’re steeped in self-criticism and perfectionism. Practice starting the recording, replacing those emotions with something you would enjoy, perhaps a feeling of connection to your ideal audience, perhaps a sense of adventure in the journey of your growth?
- Perhaps you’ve been meaning to contact some potential clients but you’re anxious and fearful about rejection, even though you know if you do contact them, some of them are likely to hire, or refer you. Practice starting the contacting process and replace any negative emotion with something you’d enjoy… perhaps imagining how grateful they (or someone they know) would be to hear that your service exists?
- Perhaps you avoid looking at your finances, even though you know you should be more responsible. Imagine what it would be like to open your bank or credit card statement with a mindful breath, and gently looking at each line item, and reflecting for a moment on the benefits that the expenditure brings to your life. Now don’t just imagine the scene, go and practice it for 3–5x, and you will have begun to repair your relationship to your finances.
You can truly change your relationship to any task that you wish you could do more consistently… and do it with joy.
This can be a replacement of the idea of “discipline” too.
Instead of powering or hustling through a project with unpleasant feelings, why not use intentional practice to change your feelings about that task? As you’ve seen from the examples above, even 3 minutes starts to make a difference.
You are a bundle of habits, of muscle memory both physical and emotional. Whatever you think you “are”, can be radically different, if you are willing to practice a new way. Even 3 miniutes can set you on a new path!
Everything you think is “natural” is an addiction, an instinct or habit that can be changed. #Neuroplasticity is starting to astound scientists about human adaptability.
Just know that you are truly, completely flexible and can become anything you passionately set your mind to.