Muscle Metaphors

The A’s making the postseason has hurt the discipline I’m trying to develop as a writer. The little brain tingle I get from reading articles about the A’s or talking about the A’s on Twitter right now is so, so tempting and hard to avoid. I’ve tried to turn my feeds off during my daily writing window, but this week, I’ve been cheating. My writing habits after one month aren’t so strongly ingrained and automatic yet that they could override the temptation of A’s talk. My articles have been much shorter this week as a result.

Translating verbal ideas into unconscious habits is difficult. So much of our routine behavior functions subconsciously and automatically, so it’s a bit of a black box. We can’t see into our brains and see what is wired to what. So we often have to try various tricks to get our subconscious brains to do what our conscious brains want them to do. A recent Fangraphs interview of LaTroy Hawkins by David Laurila had a good example of this:

I chewed on that awhile and slowly tried to transfer the concept of how I felt on the basketball court when I was shooting my jump shot. I worked that into my delivery — my arm angle and my release point. I think that was the key for me, having him translate it into basketball terms. The ball coming off your fingertips when you’re shooting a jump shot isn’t all that different from delivering a pitch.

Hawkins’ brain was already wired to do something close to the right thing when he played basketball. Thinking about his pitching in terms of shooting a basketball created a pathway in his muscle memory to the right behavior.

That struck me, because I’ve used basketball as a kind of muscle metaphor myself in order to change a physical behavior. I have a bad habit of locking my knees when I stand, which transfers weight away from my legs to my back. It causes me back pain if I end up standing for too long. Somewhere in my life, my muscle memory became wired to stand this way, and it’s very hard for me to avoid this habit this without conscious thought. In trying to fix this, I found that there was one situation where I naturally stand with the correct posture — when I prepare to shoot free throws in basketball. So now, when I need to get my posture correct, all I do is say the word “free throw” to myself, and my body corrects itself.

Finding the right cue can take a lot of experimentation, and often differs from person to person. It can be even harder when the behavior you’re trying to change isn’t a simple motion like throwing or standing, but more complex social behaviors. Charles Duhigg wrote a book called “The Power of Habit”, and he has an interesting preview of it here, where he explains how he broke a bad habit he had developed:

I’m really trying to accomplish two things with my experiment of writing daily: first, to improve the quality of the actual words I put on the page, and second, to develop the habits of behavior around that writing that put me in the proper context to write efficiently and effectively. Obviously, this week has shown me that I still haven’t figured either one of those things out yet. Because that part of our brain is a black box, it takes a lot of time and trial and error to figure out a system of cues and rewards that result in a productive set of behavioral habits. I’m still very much a work in progress here.

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