Simple to Practice, Difficult to Remember

by Daron Larson 

People tell me they find it satisfying to pay closer attention to the sensory details of ordinary experience, but that they get frustrated with themselves when they forget to practice.

What makes it so difficult to establish a habit even when we’re convinced of its benefits?

We have unrealistic expectations about the process of developing new skills. We become so focused on the potential long-term results that we misinterpret the significance of each specific, clumsy effort.

When we become more fluent at interpreting what it feels like to learn, we get better at yielding to the inevitable challenges required of consistent practice. This applies to attentional fitness, physical fitness, playing a musical instrument, or learning another language. Imagine suggesting that a young child abandon piano lessons when the process begins to feel awkward or when, after a few attempts, a crowd-pleasing performance remains out of reach.

Let me use my recent attempts to adopt Joe Smith’s hand-drying strategy. In this four-and-a-half minute demonstration, he tries to convince the audience to adopt a new hand-drying habit to reduce wasting paper. 

The strategy is simple. Remembering to do it is difficult. He spends most of his time addressing this obstacle.

Here’s what happened when I gave his idea a try: 

  1. Completely forgot to try. Didn’t even remember that I forgot. 
  2. Remembered that I forgot to try when I wasn’t washing my hands. Several times. 
  3. Forgot until leaving the restroom. Several times.  
  4. Forgot until throwing away a wad of barely damp paper towels. 
  5. Remembered when washing my hands, but forgot until noticing I was drying them with two sheets. 
  6. Remembered when approaching the sink, held onto the idea through shaking them and folding a single sheet. Noticed how surprisingly satisfying it was to have remembered. Not for the ecological reasons, but for my gradual ability to remember at the right time. Realized this might make a good illustration for the challenges of applying mindfulness to ordinary life.  
  7. Completely forgot. 
  8. Forgot to shake, but remembered to fold. 
  9. Remembered when washing, but forgot until leaving the restroom. 
  10. Remembered when reaching for the paper towel and paused to shake first. Felt good. 
  11. Remembered when walking into the restroom and held onto the idea throughout the complete process. Enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment. Felt like the hard work was behind me.  
  12. Remembered when washing my hands, but had really important things to think about (that I can’t recall now) and consciously decided to try to remember the next time. Wondered what the point of the exercise really is if only a few people try to adopt it. Also wondered if it’s reasonable to expect every living human being to sing the Happy Birthday song twice in their heads while washing their hands and then remember this ecologically friendly hand-drying mnemonic on top of that. Considered abandoning the experiment.   
  13. Completely forgot until leaving the restroom. 
  14. Found myself shaking water off my hands before drying them on an actual towel at home. 
  15. Remembered when washing my hands in public and focused on the process through to the end. Surprised by the satisfaction of remembering. 

You get the idea. The experiment continues. It does not go in a straight line. This has not yet become a permanent habit. The process is messy. It is unpredictable. I am working against the deep schematic grooves. I am trying to subvert the autopilot mode. This simply takes consistent effort over time.

However, I’m also trying to apply some insights I’ve learned along the way. I'm more aware of how my interpretations of success and failure impact any attempts to change a behavior. 

You could say that I have failed to learn a new habit because I continue to forget. 

I would suggest that my process has been riddled with success and illustrates how easy it is to abandon the development of any skill if we expect the process to be clean and smooth. 

The first hints of success appeared when I realized I had completely forgotten. The subsequent signs require that I lower the bar on the quality of my attempts, get acquainted with their messiness, and savor the unpredictable and subtle satisfaction that must compete against frustration and embarrassment for our attention.   

It is fascinating to step back and observe the whole process as someone who is more interested in becoming familiar with how humans learn new behaviors than in being someone who has developed a new habit. In this way, we are developing a foundational skill and perspective that can be applied to anything we are interested in learning. 

We are also cultivating a taste for instrinsic satisfaction in the midst of life just as it is. 

Try this:

Pick a routine activity or situation that you know will occur several times during the day: such as waiting for a web page to load, taking the stairs, stopping at red lights, hearing cell phones ring, eating, drinking, yawning, or sighing. Come up with your own. If you want to kill two birds (or save a couple trees), you can work with washing and drying your hands. Don’t worry about picking the right one or the best one. Just pick one. 

Over the next two weeks, try to remember to use the activity or situation that you picked as a reminder to spend at least a few seconds having a direct experience of one or more of the sensory components: seeing, hearing, physical feelings, emotional feelings, tasting, smelling, thinking in words, or thinking in pictures. I list these components out not so you’ll memorize them and do an exhaustive inventory, but simply to remind you that you have lots of options. Notice any one or more of them for a few seconds as an alternative to the default narrative mode. 

Practice considering all these possibilities to be equally valid signs of success: 

  • Remembering to pause and notice sensory experiences
  • Forgetting to pause and notice
  • Remembering soon after the opportunity
  • Remembering much later
  • Remembering but deciding that your current story is too compelling to suspend for a few seconds

I like to say to myself, “X is like this…” and then let curiosity drive the exploration without needing to finish the sentence with words. 

  • Waiting is like this…
  • Climbing stairs is like this…
  • Stopping is like this…
  • My emotional reaction to hearing cell phones ring is like this…

Resist the urge to evaluate your progress along the way. Try to get fascinated with the actual, imperfect experience of developing the habit of pausing to notice your life as you are living it.