Train your brain, using muscle memory techniques

Do you ever wonder how you got to your workplace today, without even remembering stopping at traffic lights? This is the magic of our brain, and the routines deeply embedded in the basal ganglia. This is also known as the muscle memory.

Our brain has two operating modes. Last month, I shared how the prefrontal cortex works, and how get most out of it. This post will focus on the muscle memory, and how it helps automate thinking processes in our brains. This then allows you to better use the tools and methodologies you know, in all situations.

Mi ni tsukeru: learning by doing

This Japanese expression literally means attaching something to our muscles. To picture it, you can refer to the more than famous Karate Kid training, when the sensei requires his apprentice to wax-on wax-off all day. Wax-on, wax-off. It is only later that the apprentice understands the value of this task. He has embedded the right move in his “muscles”.

As we continuously repeat a movement, it decreases the efforts and attention required to perform it. At first, when we learn to walk, bike or ski we need to focus on every aspects of our body. Later, as we gain confidence and muscle memory grows, we can take on tougher challenge. We try to jump or go on uneven grounds.

Using muscle memory to automate thinking processes

The same goes with intellectual tasks. For example, learning a language requires a lot of efforts. But, as you learn by speaking and listening to the new language, it slowly becomes part of your muscle memory. You can then focus your attention on more complex things than finding the right word or the grammatical structure for the sentence. You can pay attention to what the person is showing you, the non-verbal cues, …

This applies to any thinking process. Let’s take the 5 Why’s or 5W’s. When you use the tools every day, it becomes a habit. You use the tool without even noticing you are using it. You then turn your attention to something else than “how many whys have I asked” or “what is the next W I should focus on”.

As for Karate Kid, you want to be sure you embed the right use of tools. So it is key that you understand not only the process or steps by also the why. When is it best to use? Why this one rather another one? What is the goal of this tool?

Once the tools are mastered, it becomes a second nature. You start to have fun and take the tools to another level. It is also useful to face the unexpected.

Understanding the tools and methodologies to be free

I get often asked what how “strict” a methodology is or how “rigorous” should we be in our use of a tool. My answer is always “it depends”.

Think again about how you learnt to ski or swim. In the first few lessons, was it important to follow the instructions? What would have happened if you took some initiatives and did not respect the rules? Maybe you could have drowned or fell down the lift chairs, or just swallow some water or taste some snow.

So how much should you follow the “rules” of a tool or a methodology? It all depends on:

  • Your own knowledge of the tool or methodology
  • The other stakeholders’ knowledge of the tool or methodology
  • The risks associated with failure, which relates to both the context and the project

Train and refresh muscle memory to be safe

To illustrate this, let us think about the following: you are the top of a snow-capped mountain, with a few people, should you descent freestyle and try some jumps or just stick to snow plough turns?

Porters, New-Zealand

It depends on:

  • How long you have practiced ski in your life and in the season,
  • Who is with you and how good skiers they are,
  • What is the weather and quality of snow,
  • How many other skiers are on the slope.

For the first ride of the season, after a 5-year break, at a crowed ski field with some fog and your kids behind, you might go with snow plough turns. For your last ride with friends on a sunny weekday, that is the timing for freestyle.

So, it happens to me that I follow the 5S or the PDCA methodology by the book. This will happen when I work in an environment I have little knowledge about or people who have never been exposed to lean techniques before. This also applies if I work for a sector with a very low acceptance of risk, such as pharmaceuticals or aerospace.

Sometimes, I combine different tools as I feel it. When I know the organisation I am working with, there is already a background of lean or Agile techniques, there is a higher appetite for risk. Or when I just have a lot confidence in the toolset I am using, as I have been using it a lot lately.

Train your brain, by doing and repeating the use of tools or methodologies, first by the book, then by adding your touch or combining them. Keep the muscle memory active with refreshers, to keep all your tools close by.