Have you ever pulled into your driveway and not remembered how you got there because you were deep in thought about something else or had been singing at the top of your lungs?
Our brain is an unbelievably complex and efficient organ. Though constantly changing and rewiring, it allows us to do routine things smoothly, almost effortlessly. (As King David said in Psalm 139:14, we are "fearfully and wonderfully made.") The continuous, physical reengineering of our brain cells enables learning and multitasking. It also enables the formation of habits.
Habits can be awesome, powerful tools for our good, and they can be devastatingly destructive. What is a habit? What does it take to build a habit? Without becoming too technical, let's think about how our brain, nervous system and muscles learn habits—sometimes called muscle memory in sports. And let's consider how to develop positive habits.
Learning to properly shoot a basketball is a great example. It's not easy to learn proper shooting form. I remember my dad bought me a basketball when I was very young and could barely heave it over my head. As I grew older, we always had a basketball hoop in the driveway, and I spent countless hours working on shooting form.
Each passing year brought more strength and the ability to better execute a fundamentally sound shot: feet and shoulders square to the basket, elbow in, right arm extended toward the hoop, left hand coming off the ball an instant before the shot, releasing just before the peak of the jump, with the right wrist flicking the ball toward the basket, giving it a gentle backspin.
Someone instilled in me that it was more important to develop great form when I was young than it was to make a basket. Making baskets would come naturally. Through my early teen years each year would bring a conscious effort to reengineer my shot—to make it better. I found it took increasing time and effort.
Why? Because I had to unlearn the way I had been shooting and learn a better way. Sometimes the change and improvement was slight, but the effort was bigger each year.
This is an extremely important point—unlearning bad habits is very difficult! In fact, you can't really unlearn a bad habit. You can only replace it with a different, more deeply ingrained, good habit. Like a bigger nail drives out a smaller nail, so a better habit drives out a worse habit. So develop good habits early while it's easy!
Great shooters don't have to think about shooting. They hit from any angle—sometimes falling away, sometimes spinning, sometimes at the end of an acrobatic move, sometimes with a defensive player draped on them like a blanket and sometimes after being fouled. Why? Because they don't have time to think; they just react, and all the years of putting proper form and technique into muscle memory pay off—nothing but net!
One of my college coaches said it takes 25 times of practicing some thing right to put it in muscle memory. (Practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.) Well, 25 is not the magic number for everyone, but research proves it takes a lot of repetition to construct a habit.
Here is a primer on how our brain and body work together to create a habit.
Millions of interconnected computers
Our brain is like millions of interconnected computers. Billions of cells work in concert to manage the biochemical-electrical-spiritual machine that is us.
Neurons are tiny cells in the brain and throughout our nervous system that can connect to each other. We are born with a full complement of neurons but few connections. When we learn something new, the brain creates a pathway of connections so it can send and receive messages throughout the body.
The more we do the same thing, the stronger the connection. The brain doesn't want to waste time, chemicals and electrical impulses on doing the same-old-same-old, so it builds a highway that can be used over and over again.
Think of it as a river cutting a path through sandstone. The more water flows, the deeper the cut. In time the riverbed is set and, unless there is a flood or other interruption, the water will flow in the same, predictable path. In fact, it is physically impossible for the river to do anything but seek the lowest point of the path.
When we develop a habit, we are actually engineering a physical change in the cell structure of our brains. The more we repeat the habit, the stronger and more permanent the connections, the deeper the riverbed. While young, you have a wonderful opportunity to engineer good habits into the very structure of your brain. It will never be easier. The older you get, the harder it will be to change.
Try an experiment. Take 30 days and force yourself to develop a good habit. Say your current habit is to come home, grab a snack and plop down in front of the TV. Maybe you'll get to your homework, maybe you won't.
Make yourself do something different. Have your mind command your body to walk in the door, grab a snack, leave the TV off, head straight to the table and work on homework. After you finish your homework, reward yourself immediately with some TV, video games or basketball. Relish the fact that you don't have to think about those completed assignments again. You are free from them!
The key, no matter how difficult, is to make yourself do it 25 or 30 times in a row. It will then be a habit. Finishing your homework first will become automatic. It will feel weird to walk in the door and not head straight for the homework. If you try to turn on the TV, an invisible force field will pull you back—must...not...touch...remote!
Thirty days of teeth-gritting self-discipline is a small price to pay for custom engineering your brain cells for a lifetime of successes!
Armed with good habits, you will consistently live in a manner pleasing to God and accomplish the impossible. And it will feel effortless because things that are hard for other people will be easy for you, for you will have purposefully engineered your brain to do them automatically. VT