Switching To Manual

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that changing our patterns and habits can seem an arduous undertaking. It feels awkward and unnatural. And it’s tiring. But that is only because we are having to resort to manual techniques in order to make it possible. In any walk of life, the switch from automatic to manual is a frustrating one because automatic, by definition, requires no thought and minimal effort. Manual, on the other hand, is slow and cumbersome. To begin with, at least.

So much of our behaviour is automatic. It’s to our advantage that it is so, because it means we are able to perform many more tasks without expending unnecessary energy deliberating or deciding what to do and how to do it. However, if we consider that some of what we do is not optimal then we open up the possibility of change. And when we set out to change the habits of a lifetime, it is the equivalent of switching over to manual control of ourselves.

Initially the difficulty is remembering to do it. It is the nature of automatic that it needs little or no input and requires no control. It flows without strain or reflection, encountering limited resistance along the way. In effect, we could say that we don’t have the control over our behaviour we think we have. We are at the mercy of our patterns and habits in the same way we feel powerless when our emotions take control.

It is common in working environments to analyse procedures and processes in order to establish whether and what kind of improvement is necessary (as in the Six Sigma method). The question is often asked, ‘Why, exactly, do we do it this way?’. Sometimes, the answer comes back, ‘I don’t know. That’s how we’ve always done it.’ It’s at this point that the experts examine whether there might be a better, more efficient way. (Interestingly, the majority of time and effort expended in the improvement process is invested in the definition, measurement and analysis of the situation.)

The fact is that, over time, we establish patterns which, when examined years later, appear to be far from optimal. In product design, the QWERTY keyboard is a classic example. Its arrangement was originally conceived out of necessity, but if it were designed today there is no way the keys would be placed in the same configuration. We’d be better off if we changed to a more ergonomic layout, but too many people are too set in their ways to change anything with any real effect. Anyway, it works well enough, so why change it?

Our own patterns were established in a similar way, and improvements in our behaviour are constrained by a similar logic.

We don’t give much consideration to why we behave the way we do, but there are always reasons. We need only look at our history. The more established the pattern, the further back its origin (or the more often is has been practised). But we don’t have to go searching for reasons why. It doesn’t really matter. All we have to do is to observe our current behaviour and decide how we would prefer to behave. The rest is just practice, and there are plenty of opportunities every day to practise.

To help take some of the effort out of the process, look at it this way: rather than actively initiate any new habits, just stop doing the old ones. If you are the kind of person, for example, who fills uncomfortable silences, switch to manual the next time it happens and resist the urge to speak. Be quiet and observe. It’s highly likely you will learn something. Something about yourself, about other people, about silences, and about patterns of behaviour. Switching to manual makes you more conscious. You will notice more and, as the world opens up to you, you will be encouraged to use more of your manual override until, eventually, it becomes automatic.


Related post: Better Strategies

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