Habits Are Like Muscles

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I have a friend who earned a black belt in martial arts and cannot perform any of the techniques now. What happened? He stopped training after his black belt at age 14, and quickly lost his muscle memory.

Martial arts techniques are nothing more than habits. If they can be lost so quickly, are any of our behaviors safe from the ravages of time? Luckily, it’s harder to forget actions that are constantly performed (i.e. walking, talking, eating). My friend forgot so quickly because martial arts techniques are unnatural movements and puberty induces synaptic pruning.

Sounds simple enough, but this habit atrophy warrants further discussion. If time spent training reinforces habits, then practice makes permanent, not perfect. This can be dangerous if an uncommon habit is critical to performing a task well. For example, the pilot who practices unorthodox maneuvers will have the best results when a rare engine failure occurs. The poker player who has a habit of calculating pot odds before every bet will demolish his “intuitive” opponents in the long run.

So how can we ensure we haven’t lost valuable, rare tendencies? By checking every month. By periodically running through simulations that expose our weaknesses. By embracing failure as an opportunity instead of a threat. And most importantly, by fixing errors in a timely manner.

Bulk up: build some good habits.

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