Are You In Your Own Way? The Psychology Of Getting Unstuck, And The 3 Stages Of Making Habits Autonomous

By Brianna Wiest

Success is more a product of habit than it is skill. To excel at something, you must be able to do it prolifically. Many people write well. Few people write well and consistently. What separates experts from the rest of us is a blend of profound self-control, disciplined routine, and unwavering dedication.

While natural skill is more or less something you’re born with, self-control is something you develop. Most people believe the opposite is true: that they can perfect their talent, but that the drive to do so will come easily.

Our minds have a limited means for self-control. This is to say, we are only capable of withholding ourselves from our impulses and desires for a period of time each day. With practice, we can extend that period, but it is finite regardless.

People who understand this use their time wisely: they eliminate unnecessary decision-making, reduce distractions, minimize what doesn’t matter, and then they focus. Over time, it becomes second-nature.

Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself… so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances. – William James

In fact, in the 1960s, psychologists identified three specific stages we must go through in order to acquire those new skills:

Cognitive: When we first intellectualize the task, make mistakes, and ultimately devise new strategies to perform better.

Associative: When effort is still required to complete the task, but it’s less mentally strenuous than it was. Some aspects of the task are beginning to come naturally, mistakes are still being made.

Autonomous: We go into “autopilot,” or in some cases, “flow.” We can release ourselves from conscious focus and let our programming take over.

However, it is sometime between the last two phases that we get caught in a sort of plateau: we do the task often enough, but our expectation of how we should perform is still miles away from how we think it should be. It is what Ira Glass calls the “creative gap,” the point at which most people give up.

For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit… If you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

The difference between the people who persevere to see that their work rises to their standard and the people who toss in the towel is not one of sheer, unprecedented talent. It’s just a matter of having the (often uncomfortable) commitment to keep growing.

If you don’t have the desire nor the ability to push past the plateau, then an exodus is a means of showing you that there’s something else better suited for you. If you do, it means you must eliminate the unnecessary details, work with your current threshold for self-control, and keep going. Getting unstuck is realizing that you were never stuck in the first place: you only stopped to ask yourself, “Is this what I’m here for?”

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