Interrupting Muscle Memory

Where are you reading this email? In your designated workspace? On your phone while making breakfast? On your phone while hanging out with your kids? Sometimes the choices we make are conscious. But increasingly, they’re not. And the same things that make smartphones a revolutionary tool for the modern work world also make it harder to be present to where we are and what we’re doing. How often do you go to make a sandwich and instinctively pull out your phone to check your email? If the answer is a lot, this kind of instinct has become muscle memory – your body ‘knows’ to take a certain action based on the circumstances based on the practice you’ve given it.

Muscle memory can be extremely helpful. The more you practice habits you want to take on, the more your body will know how to perform; think not only of athletes or musicians, but also of practicing a challenging conversation to ensure the desired outcome. We’ve talked about this a lot previously, and will again in the future. But interrupting muscle memory also gives you a chance to choose more consciously, and decide if your subconscious actions are ones you support or ones you want to think about differently.

Sometimes these interruptions come from elsewhere – think of how much you get thrown off when a software update changes how you complete a task, or writing last year’s date on something well into the new year. Sometimes they can come from evolution in societal norms, like the practices around gender pronouns, or recycling practices. Even when we believe these changes are for the best, these interruptions can challenge us to think about our prior actions. But sometimes, you might choose to create interruptions for yourself – to break your routines and norms to create new best practices for yourself that reflect more of who you want to be. So how could this be helpful this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Interrupt your muscle memory. In each case, try it for a week if you can; this will enable you to more consciously choose if these are habits you want to keep as muscle memory (which will be true in many cases, in which case you will remove the interruptions), or if these are habits you want to address and change.

  1. Challenge your use of devices. Consider how much you use your devices. If you live with others, ask them how much they see you using a device, and what they see you doing on it. You may be surprised by their answers.
  2. Create interruptions. Turn off notifications and pop-ups on your devices. Move any apps that you check instinctively to folders somewhere other than your home screen so checking them takes a conscious choice. Also try leaving your devices in different places than usual; if you keep your phone in your bedroom at night and check it right before bed or in the morning (or during the night!), try leaving it in the kitchen instead.
  3. Consider where else you could benefit from interrupting muscle memory. The tool of interrupting muscle memory isn’t only useful for device usage. Anytime you find yourself thinking “this is just how I do things; it’s who I am” – especially related to your team and colleagues – consider adding in an interruption. This will help you determine if this is a habit you want to keep as muscle memory or not.

If you try this week’s tips, let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear your experiences.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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