Muscle Memory

Muscle memory (neuromuscular facilitation)…

“occurs when you have repeated an action enough times to have etched that pattern into your brain. The action becomes automatic, requiring no conscious input on your part.”

memoryGetting dressed, walking and tying your shoes are examples of activities completed by muscle memory. To get a feel of just how comfortable you are in your muscle memory, try changing your routine in any of these activities. Put your clothes on in a different order than usual. Try imitating how someone else walks. Change the way you tie your shoes. You’ll find just how comfortable muscle memory makes you feel and how hard it is to change it.

We also have negative habits established in muscle memory. Clenching your jaw and poor posture are examples. Take that a step further to our thought processes. Do you find yourself saying, “I can’t…” all too easily before even trying something new or changing a routine? These negative habits and thought patterns are examples of muscle memories too.

We need muscle memory to automate tasks that we don’t need to give mental energy toward, which allows us to redirect that energy toward that which requires active thinking and processing on our part. Our lives are filled with muscle memory activities, some of which make our lives easier and some of which present struggles we need to focus on and overcome in order to grow and mature. Muscle memory can both free us for bigger tasks and keep us from attempting them.

Spiritual Muscle Memory

Do you feel stuck spiritually? Consider reprogramming your spiritual muscle memory. If prayers feel aimless and/or worship seems a dry routine, perhaps muscle memory needs changed. And if loving others seems like a forced “should,” then changing spiritual muscle memory might lead to transformation.

The following elements, adapted from what psychologists and athletes alike use when breaking down old muscle memory habits to create new ones, hint at beginning steps for changing spiritual muscle memory:

  1. Repetition. Too often, a positive habit fails to get established in muscle memory because we fail to repeat the process enough times. Only through repetition can we effectively rid ourselves of bad habits and replace them with good ones.
  2. Consistency. Once you find out what works, stick with it. Keep doing what works (repetition) to establish it as a habit.
  3. Comfort. Creating new muscle memories and letting old ones go creates discomfort. Keep comfort zones for times of rest and recuperation that generate energy needed for the discomfort of stretching and growing.
  4. Brokenness. Sometimes, we must break down what is not working in order to create a new habit that will make us stronger. This gets at the idea of rooting out  bad habits holding us back and replacing them with new ones that helps us grow.
  5. Variety. Just like we need comfort in order to work through discomfort, we also need variety in order to not get swallowed up in the repetition of consistency. Establish consistent habits but allow for variety within them.

What can you immediately apply from this list to help you move forward and go deeper in your relationship with God? The principles of breaking down and establishing muscle memory were deliberately discussed generally to allow for more unique individual application. Take some time to consider how you can personally apply these principles, and share your ideas in the comments.

Note: This month’s focus lies with taking aspects of our physical selves and making spiritual connections. Also, this week begins a summer schedule for Struggle to Victory with a scheduled post every Tuesday and periodic posts at other times throughout the month (my attempt at being a bit more spontaneous). I’m open to publishing guest posts as well, so leave any interest in writing one in the comments below.

16 thoughts on “Muscle Memory

  1. I find that most spiritually beneficial habits are not natural and take a lot of work to establish. One simple example is the habit of praying regularly. I have to admit that I often struggle with this but I want prayer to be a natural habit of my thought life. So I must continue to work on it and remind myself to allow my thoughts to be communion with God.
    My recent post Why You Should Stop Worshiping Celebrity Christian Leaders!

    • Makes sense, Caleb. What's natural for a person is often self-serving, especially when we allow the flesh more control than the spirit. I guess the muscles strengthen in whatever animal we feed.

  2. I agree, Changing old habits can take a lot of work, because yes, we have to break down the old and rebuild. If we want to grow healthy muscle, physical or spiritual we it takes work and commitment.

  3. I confess that I tend to get bored with spiritual disciplines if I am not adding variety. Sometimes, I just have to take a hike and talk to God on the trail. In the past, I have attended a different type of worship service to change it up.
    My recent post Do You Ever Stop & Ask Why?

  4. In terms of spiritual items to develop that muscle memory in a positive way you have to intentionally decide what you want to do; how you want to live; how you want to spend your time.

    It is easy to not even think about how you want your spiritual life to be if nothing is stressing you. When life starts beating you up is a poor time to decide you want to have some good habits spiritually.

    • For sure, Mark. We need to know ahead of time, before struggles hit, what governs and directs our lives. During a trial is not the time to decide our values.

  5. I like this Kari. I find I need variety in my spiritual life – music, reading, journaling – or I get stale. Good word today.

  6. I was just sitting at the piano running through double octave scales and it made me think of your post. Muscle memory will always be the result of repetition and practice – good or bad. I imagine that's why the saying goes, "Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. Great thoughts Kari.
    My recent post Happy Compliment Your Mirror Day

    • Paying piano gives a good example of the positive side of muscle memory. Repetition & practice, for good or for bad, forms our habits, and our addictions for that matter. The saying fits well too!

    • My husband has said many times that it takes about 6 months before you finally feel a grove when you've taken on a new job/position. He says to not make any major decisions about it before giving it 6 months. I also recently read that we don't miss what our core habits like devotions & prayer do for us until it's almost too late to not experience repercussions for neglecting them. My point is that it sounds like you've just kept trying until you found what works. That's the key, really, to not give up looking for that "new normal" that we must find as the seasons of life change.

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