I have started reading “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin, and in the introduction, she writes that habits are powerful because they eliminate the necessity of decision-making, which, she also argues, is a finite resource. Basically, you make decision once and then follow a habitual sequence of steps to the desired result without thinking about the individual steps.
This reminded me of the “Creation and Destruction” essay by John Boyd, which I came across a month ago. Boyd was a military strategist and an instructor of fighter pilots. His theory of making creative decisions is based on a continuous loop of analysis (destruction) of the current reality (and one’s mental model of it) and synthesis (creation) of a new and improved mental model. In this context, a habit, as Rubin describes it, is a synthetic process – you don’t analyze the components of a habit, but instead string them together into one complex action.
Acting without thinking, but in a way appropriate to the situation is, of course, a central concept in martial arts. In kendo, it is called mushin. And just as an everyday habit, the instinctive reaction in a fight is developed through repeated practice.
Being a fairly universal principle, habit-forming can be applied practically to everything. For example, in photography, say, I decide that I want to freeze action of dancers during a performance. I select a ‘fast’ lens, open the aperture wide, set the shutter speed high, autofocus – to continuous tracking mode, framing rate – to ‘high’ and from that point on worry only about composition and catching the dynamic moments. Actually, even this preliminary setup becomes habitual with practice. I only need to think ‘freeze action’, and the rest happens more or less on autopilot.
Of course, as Gretchen Rubin also mentions, habits are great servants, but terrible masters. They makes us more efficient, but in doing so rob us of the actual experience of the action. When you hit a pause on Boyds Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) loop and delegate part of the sequence to a habit, you sacrifice present-moment awareness. Autopilots, after all, are not famous for their creativity.