A Tale of Three Habits

FirstPersonShooterIt’s January, a time for resolutions.

Resolutions are really just about new habits. Habits you hope to grow. Habits you want to eliminate.

I’m so-so when it comes to habits. Most of my success as a writer and person comes from developing some good habits early on in my life. My bad habits I’ve had a harder time getting rid of, and I’ve focused mainly on developing other positive habits that mitigate those bad ones (like exercising lots so I can keep drinking soda).

But change is good. Even trivial change that proves you’re capable of changing. Over the past couple of years, I made three significant (if not terribly important) changes in my life. I’m sharing them with you here in hopes that they’ll show you how easy it can be to flex your will muscles and shift things in your favor.

Habit One: Shooting Wrong

I have a confession to make: I used to be a look inverter.

For folks who don’t know what that is, “look inversion” is a setting on your controls in shooting games. It means you set the controls so that toggling the look joystick down makes you look up (like with a plane’s controls), whereas the normal settings have the joystick go down for down and up for up.

Look inversion felt more natural to me, but it’s not the default setting. That meant that every time I borrowed somebody else’s game or log-in, I had to go mess around with the control settings. Then a couple of games came out that allowed look inversion, but had a chapter or long scene where look inversion didn’t work.

So I decided to stop look inverting. I played through an older version on HALO from start to finish, about an hour a night, and did player-versus-player Call of Duty with my teenage son. After about a month, regular look settings were as reflexive to me as look inversion had been.

And that monkey was off my back.

Habit Two: My Shoes

Did you know that most of us are tying our shoes wrong? I learned it the way you did:

  1. Make a knot
  2. Make a loop with one string
  3. Make a loop with the other string and wrap it clockwise around the first
  4. Make a knot with the loops

I learned that when I was five. Thirty-five years later, I figured I had it down. Then along came this asshole.

And this asshole told me I’d been doing it wrong. And he was correct. His way (tying the loops counterclockwise) kept my shoes from coming untied.

So I decided to learn how to do that. It followed the typical progression of skill building:

  • Unconscious Incompetence — Not knowing you’re doing it wrong. Everybody’s starting point. For me, this stage lasted three and a half decades.
  • Conscious Incompetence — Knowing you’re doing it wrong, but reflexively doing it right. Includes all the times you have to start a process reminding yourself to do things the right way. I put on my shoes two or three times a day, and spent probably three weeks in this stage.
  • Conscious Competence — The stage where you’re doing it right automatically, but have to focus on the task to do it right even though you remember more often than you don’t. This stage lasted another two weeks or so.
  • Unconscious Competence — Where doing it right  is a natural part of what you do. You do it without thinking about it. After six weeks, this new method was just the way I tie my shoes.

Elapsed time: one-and-a-half months. And it totally made my life better and easier. You should seriously try this because (a) it shows you how easy it is to change a habit when you put your mind to it and (b) it’s great walking around without having your shoes keep coming untied.

The Floating MosqueHabit Three: Driving on the Correct Side of the Road

I think I mentioned that I spent last year in Malaysia, where they drive on the left side of the road.

Learning this took me a little more than a month, but brought into sharp focus a wrinkle in that four-step progression I went through with tying my shoes.

During the conscious incompetence stage, you develop the reflex to automatically contradict what you naturally want to do. You realize your impulse is wrong, and get in the habit of correcting that impulse.

Then comes a day when your impulse is correct (you’ve reached the conscious competence stage)…but you also have the habit of doing the opposite of what your impulse says. So you have the following internal conversation:

“Dude, do it this way.”

“No!!!! That’s wrong!!!”

“Are you sure?”

“Hell yes, I’m sure!!!”

“Which one of us is right?”

“Shit.”

I went through this with tying my shoes, but tying your shoes is neither as time-sensitive nor as life-threatening as turning into traffic in a country where the roads routinely include people transporting livestock on their motorcycles.

Many panicked seconds (and only one instance of running my car up onto a curb), that phase passed and I was able to confidently, calmly, turn correctly in Malaysian traffic.

Until I came home and had to learn to drive on the right side of the road.

Okay, So What’s the Point?

Changing habits is good for you, even changing small habits with no serious impact on your life. I’d say changing one of those habits is actually better to start. Its triviality takes away the guilt and other head games you get when you try to change habits that mean something important. You can focus on the process of change, rather than on the pressure you’re getting to lose weight, or quit coke, or whatever.

And once you’ve succeeded at changing once, you know how to do it with something that matters.

What are you going to change this quarter? Tell folks about it in the comments. I’d love to learn from your experience.