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

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

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