Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Power of Habit - A Review

As I was processing some difficult news this morning, my eye noticed the cover of the latest book I've been reading, Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit.

The power of habit leads us to movement, progress, success, health even when facing unfortunate developments. Duhigg discusses the case of a woman who goes to a lab and over the course of two years manages to radically transform her life. She has not only successfully quit smoking, but also managed to run a marathon, and move up at work. It turns out, according to her neurologists, that her success was linked to a change in the patterns inside her brain.

The author postulates that the power of habit is so grand that without it, we would be lost. Much of good can be accomplished with relative ease due to it. While reading from it I got to thinking of my chess tutor when I was eleven. I had a hard time staying put, in a chair, and I always sought the easy way out. The easy check mate. "Muscle memory, Brikena, muscle memory. It needs to get exercised. While sitting down. Don't move your right leg. Don't tap on the table. Don't chew gum. Focus....." he used to say to me. I didn't like it when he'd say it as I'd rather check mate the other party quickly (or get check mated by it quickly) and run outside to my friends for a game of whatever.

It's amazing how we can get good at so me many things by relying on habits that at times appear to be clothed in antithesis. Consider bike riding and chess. The reason why I mention the former is because Duhrigg makes mention of it in his book as well and my experience is congruent with his explanation. He mentions bike riding as an example of practicing the "art of not thinking."

Biking like swimming are things I learned by myself. The same applied to chess in the beginning but once I displayed some understanding, I was given a tutor. I would watch my Dad and brother play and I'd mimetically get to a point of understanding. That's how I got to see how limited but dangerous the queen could be and how impulsive and manipulatable the knight is. But I digress.

When it came to swimming, it happened in the Adriatic. It was afternoon. I had a red bathing suit on. I had been in the water for hours and my lip was purple. My mom kept wanting me to come out of the water but I said "no!" "I need to learn this now!" I needed to do a frog style underwater. I just had to keep practicing. And so, after swallowing who knows how much salty water, I became, to quote Mom, fish-like. To this time, diving and swimming frog style under water is one of the most relaxing experiences in life. You learn it by doing. By not thinking, by simply allowing the body to enter in a dialog of understanding with water. The same applies to bike riding. I have a hard time with visual memory. I do, however, remember vividly when I first got to ride an adult's bike and swim long distances in the sea.

I loved riding bikes when I was a child. And I loved chess. I had two camps of friends. The popular ones who leaned more towards visibility and public games and the really smart but painfully shy group would come to my parents' guest quarters and practice the various theoretical chess openings. The chess nerds, or as my brother used to call them, the Kasparovs. Kena, dinner time. Are the Kasparovs gone yet? The art of thinking came in handy with the Kasparovs. And its sort of opposite is what I espoused when frolicking in the sun with the bike riders and swimmers.

The art of thinking and the art of non thinking are required in both activities. When it came to chess, I had to learn the hierarchy of strategy and how to better fight the opponent. When to attack the tower, or make the queen move so that the king would finally get nervous and eventually start moving nervously till he'd get check mated.

When it came to riding bikes or teaching my friends how to ride them, the advice was simple, and funnily in sync with Duhigg's premise: do, don't think. Duhigg makes the point that learning how to do different activities is going to require different modus operandi. For instance, the skills required to learning how to ride a bike are not easily explicable to the conscious mind. Chess is a bit of a different story.

Duhigg says that our conscious mind is not nearly fast enough or accurate enough to handle even what seems like a relatively simple task such as hitting a golf ball–which is why superior athletes must learn to practice “the art of not thinking,” in order to succeed.

In sum, The Power of Habit is a good read. It might make you revisit your past and the times when you first learned how to do things you're currently good at.


Unknown said...

This came at just the right time. I've been wondering which books to get for Spring Break. Problem solved now. ;)
Are you heading South any time soon. You-know-who would love to know....

Unknown said...

I can see you stubbornly diving till you get it right, btw.

Sra said...

I was just reading about habits lately. I'm going to add this book to my Kindle list. I think being conscious about habits will make it easier to reprogram them.