Early on in my outdoor education, as I was learning to rappel, someone very wise once told me that “your habits will betray you.” Specifically, they were emphasizing the importance of always tying knots in the ends of my rope before rappelling. Every year people die rappelling off the ends of their rope, so having knots in the end of the rope can save your life. By tying knots in the ends of my rope every single time I rappel, it becomes a habit. That way, if I’m on a multi-pitch rappel at the end of a long day, with a storm rolling in I don’t have to think about it, I just do it automatically.* If I don’t build the habit, it would be easy to forget in a stressful situation.
* habits are not perfect – always double and triple check your systems!
Habits, such as tying knots in the ends of the rope before rappelling, are a type of procedural memory. “Procedural memory is a part of the long-term memory that is responsible for knowing how to do things, also known as motor skills. As the name implies, procedural memory stores information on how to perform certain procedures, such as walking, talking and riding a bike. Delving into something in your procedural memory does not involve conscious thought.” (source: https://www.livescience.com/43595-procedural-memory.html) The bottom line here is that once something is stored in our procedural memory, we don’t have to think about how to do it – we just do it. Have you ever driven yourself home, and arrived with no recollection of the journey? That’s an example of procedural memory at work.
Creating procedural memories of safety or rescue systems helps us perform in stressful situations. Instead of having to think through the steps, we perform them automatically. An important caveat here is that procedural memories are resistant to change – as we all know, it’s much harder to break or change a habit than it is to create one in the first place.
Beyond the safety implications, habits have a huge impact on performance.
It’s easy to see how our habitual movement patterns affect performance. The expert climber seems to float effortlessly up the wall. Without thinking about it, she carefully places her feet in exactly the right position on the wall. After years of consciously placing her feet precisely, it has become automatic and she can focus her attention on other aspects of her climbing.
More fascinating (to me at least) are our mental habits. I’m using the term mental habits to refer to both our thought patterns and our emotional reactions. Let’s talk about thought patterns first.
Have you ever actually stopped to listen to yourself think? I don’t know about you, but there is usually a lot going on inside my head, and it is often the same thoughts over and over again. Here’s where it gets interesting: when you think the same thing over and over again, you start to believe it. And when you believe something, you start behaving in a manner that supports your belief. For example, if you believe that you can’t climb overhanging routes because you are “not strong enough” you are not going to try as hard. Rather than admit to yourself that you fell because you didn’t try very hard, you might tell yourself something like “the route felt hard for the grade because it wasn’t my style.” The takeaway is that our thought patterns matter.
It can be strange to think of our emotional reactions as a habit, but indeed they can be! If we experience a particular emotion in a particular scenario often enough, we begin to associate that scenario with that emotion. For many climbers, leading is scary. It definitely was for me at first. Rather than continue to climb routes where I felt scared on lead, I sought out really easy routes where I felt confident. Gradually, I began to associate leading with feeling confident and could start pushing my limits. Sometime I push to far and get scared. That’s ok. However, rather than follow up a scary lead with another tough lead, I try to follow it up with a few easier leads to regain that sense of confidence. It’s still a work in progress, but for the most part I feel relaxed and confident on lead. I hope that over time I continue to strengthen the association between leading and feeling confident.
Enough of my musings for today. What are you most curious about?