Superstition or Routine?

July 28, 2021

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I've been trying to focus lately on productive habits, with the idea of spending more energy on amplifying what I do well over suppressing what I do poorly. By amplifying what I do well, I intend to build trust in my body, my shot, and myself. This leads to a question about certain kinds of habits and whether they are productive or unproductive.

One such dilemma concerns superstition and routine. Are they merely two different ways to frame the same thing? Maybe. Here's how I try to distinguish them.

Routines help us by making certain movements or steps autonomic. By repeating these steps precisely, we gradually move performing those steps out of the conscious mind and into the subconscious mind. (From System 1 to System 2, for those of you who know that model.) By now, we know the various benefits of doing this: freeing up the conscious mind and allowing the body to perform the movements more consistently. Routines help us use our conscious mind to do other things while allowing the body o do what "it knows how" to do. Repetition leads to ease leads to both consistency and to confidence through trust. That all sounds good!

Superstitions look like routines, but they have a dark side, because they reflect a belief that if we don't do them, then something bad will happen. A superstition amounts to believing that doing one thing causes another thing to happen, even when there is no rational basis for linking those two things together in that way. Superstitions lead to unproductive behaviors, such as the infamous Cargo Cult.

So... when we stand in exactly the same place at the back of the approach between frames, always drinking our water (or whatever) with our left hand, humming some stupid song to ourselves, is that a routine or a superstition? I think it depends entirely on how you interpret your actions.

Why are you doing it? Are you doing it in order to free your conscious mind or are you doing it in order to avoid jinxing yourself on five strikes in a row? If it's the first, then that sounds like a routine; and if it's the second, then that sounds like a superstition.

But I see a problem here. It seems entirely rational to think "if I break my routine, then I hurt my performance, and so I can't break my routine, otherwise I'll screw up this shot at the sixth strike". So... if we know that our routine is a routine, does it somehow become a superstition? Do we turn our routine into a superstition merely by focusing on the risks of not following our routine?

Maybe!

So don't do that.

Remember instead the productive basis for routines: clearing the conscious mind, getting out of the body's way, staying in the moment, conserving energy to perform, regulating emotions. And as they suggestion in the meditation world, when you notice that you've wandered away from your routine, then don't judge yourself and don't panic, but instead merely start again. As long as you start again, you're "doing it right".