How the Right Habits Can Save Us Under Pressure (or, Why Is There Cream Cheese in my Freezer?)

I found a tub of cream cheese in my freezer this week.

I didn’t put it there. My wife says she didn’t either. But what probably happened, is that in the morning rush to get the kids changed, fed, and out the door, we cleared the table and put everything away without really thinking about what we were doing.

Like putting milk in the pantry or our keys in the fridge, usually we catch ourselves and chuckle at our absent-mindedness. But a similar thing can happen under pressure, when it’s not quite so funny…

The importance of programming the right scripts

37signals co-founder Jason Fried recently used a story from his self defense class to illustrate the importance of developing the right habits.

The class was working on some gun defense techniques, and when each student’s turn was over, the instructor told them to drop the gun on the ground and let their partner pick it up themselves instead of simply handing it over.

Why do such a thing?

The instructor explained that if you get used to handing the weapon back to the attacker after disarming them, you might accidentally do this in a real situation too.

Sounds ridiculous, right?

But then the instructor showed a surveillance video in which the victim does exactly that.

In critical high-pressure situations, when we’re either preoccupied with whatever is happening in the moment, or our mind has simply gone blank, our actions tend to be guided mostly by the habits or default “scripts” that we’ve cultivated over time.

Forgetting to bow

My mom likes to tell the story of one of my early performances when I was 3 or 4 years old. As the story goes, I walked out on stage, turned to look at the pianist, played the whole piece with my back to the audience, and walked right off stage without a bow. The audience might have thought it was cute, but my mom thought it might not be so great when I was 13 and still playing with my back to the audience.

So, my mom started making me practice my walk on stage, my smile to the audience, my bow, announcing my piece to the audience, and starting the piece over and over in the days leading up to every performance. No detail was too small, from how I walked, to how long I would stay down on my bow, to making sure I was still smiling when I straightened back up (because it’s a little disconcerting when someone smiles, bows, then straightens up with a very serious look on their face).

I thought this was all very silly, so I rolled my eyes and dragged my feet through the whole rigamarole. But I never again forgot to bow or tune or anything silly like that.

As I grew older, I got better at weaseling my way out of such drills. And then one day when I was 17, I performed a concerto with orchestra…and walked off stage without a bow. I turned to shake hands with the conductor, turned a bit more to shake hands with the concertmaster, and then turned and walked through the orchestra until I was off stage.

How could I forget to bow, at age 17?

It wasn’t the first time I’d performed with an orchestra, but in the moment, I just wasn’t thinking! And since I hadn’t spent much time programming the right scripts into my autopilot to guide me, I did whatever came naturally. To be honest, I didn’t even remember forgetting to bow, and had to see the video to believe it.

It’s the little things

Often, we forget the silliest things, because they seem so trivial that we don’t bother to work them into our autopilot scripts.

What do you do to cultivate the right habits and program the right scripts, so that the little things aren’t forgotten when you walk out on stage and get caught up in the moment?

photo credit: Dalboz17 via photopin cc

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10 Responses

  1. Hey Noa,

    one thing that really helped me to not forget important things is creating a checklists. I read about it in a book by Atul Gawande – The Checklist Manifesto. It was fascinating to read how checklists can help to save people’s lives. And those checklists were very useful even for surgeons that have lots of experience.

    So before a show I have my checklist ready to make sure I don’t forget anything. It really helped me to get rid of unnecessary pressure before the show.

    1. Totally agree with you Lukas, having a checklist will surely help not to forget even the silliest things that need to be done. I guess the right habit is to maintain calm and have some presence of mind even under pressure to do things the right way.

    2. Thanks, Lukas. I ought to read this book – I don’t like having to remember things, and have been relying more on checklists as the years go by. I’m guessing the book will help me figure out a more structured and effective way to do this and take things to the next level?

  2. Great post! Something similar happened at a recital for my students. An 8 year old boy took a bow and then turned his back to the audience to play. I later realized he did that because of the configuration in my studio. When we did the practice run throughs with piano at the lesson, his pointed his scroll to the piano keyboard so he simply did the same thing in the recital without regard to the audience. Now, we have run throughs in the actual recital hall. 🙂

  3. WEAR THE CLOTHES YOU WILL WEAR THE DAY OF THE PERFORMANCE. This is big for everyone, but I’ve found it to be more of an issue for women since so many of our formalwear is so very different from what we wear day to day, and so much scratchier and more uncomfortable. Find out if that bra will let you hike one arm up without poking you right in the business if you’re a string player. Wear low shoes or tuck flats under the piano if you’re a pianist. DO NOT wear a tight skirt if you’re a cellist. Make sure that taffeta number won’t itch like mad no matter what you play. Bring a handkerchief to wipe off the lipstick if you’re a wind player. Even the scent of hairspray should not be a surprise to you on stage.

    Going out on stage is like doing an EVA on the space station: NO possible sensation should come as a surprise to you.

    1. Great point! When I was younger I wore a boned corset for a singing performance I was doing…yep! Not much breathing going on there!

      As a rock singer I tend to move differently on stage depending on my mood, I now always rehearse in the shoes i’ll wear on stage so I get used to the center of gravity. When in doubt wear wedges instead of stilettos!

  4. Hee hee great points! I find there is a place inbetween “being in the moment” and “still paying attention” where you need to reside. Once in a classical vocal performance in school i was so focused in the moment of singing one line that i actually forget to sing the most impressive high note of the whole piece.

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