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Muscle Memory, Routines, & Efficiency: Understanding How Slow is Smooth & Smooth is Fast

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

You have probably heard the saying, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

Though its origins are not crystal-clear, it is a phrase that we credit to the U.S. military – specifically popularized by special operations teams.

The phrase itself might not seem entirely cohesive at first. Is it just a play on words? What does it even mean? And more importantly, what on earth does it have to do with your life or your business?

Take a moment and picture this: You are a soldier, hunkered down low in a foxhole. The enemy is running at you. Naturally, you shoot. But if your weapons jam, you are faced with a predicament: you have a small window (that is closing fast) to clear the jam, aim your weapon, fire again, and save your life.

Stressful? Absolutely. But at that moment, you would likely be so grateful that—even under that pressure of imminent danger—you have been trained to clear the jam in your weapon quickly and correctly and return fire to defend your life and the lives of those around you.

If you are not a soldier, you might be wondering—how can someone do this without messing it up?

That is where this phrase comes in. Soldiers are taught the process with this phrase in mind, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. And it all begins with breaking down each and every movement and activity associated with clearing and understanding their weapons.

Imagine it like this:

· Slow—Step-by-step, carefully practicing each and every individual movement to clear the weapon.

· Smooth—Practice each step and movement over and over again until it becomes muscle memory.

· Fast—Conscious thinking is no longer necessary; at this point, you are operating off muscle memory only. This is when you are at your fastest.

Muscle Memory & Subconscious Efforts for Efficient Routines

Think back to when you were a child learning how to tie your shoes. Any bunny-ear fans out there? How about shoe-bow people or loop-around-your-thumb folks?

Do you ever stop to think about what method you use to tie your shoes? Do you even know the steps you take to tie your shoes anymore?

Most likely not. But that is not a bad thing—it just means you have committed that everyday action to muscle memory and subconscious thinking. And it is fast, right?

You learned the process of tying your shoes slowly. Step by step, you practiced and figured it out until one day, the process became smooth. Then, probably without even noticing it, you became so fast you didn’t even have to think about the process.

We have a word for that type of thing: efficiency.

The same is true with things like typing (if you are good at it, of course), driving your car, playing an instrument, and more. In fact, there is probably a multitude of things in your daily routine you do quickly and perfectly that you don’t even think about!

Every morning as you get ready for your day, many of us have the same routines. In all likelihood, what we do is so practiced and rehearsed that if something forces us to change that routine—even just a little bit—it has the potential to throw off our entire day.

Do not get us wrong here; routines are a good thing—they allow us to take some of the trivial tasks off the table and allow us to form them into bigger systems. And once we have that routine down, we can then focus our attention (even just partially) on something else.

Think about routine like a subconscious autopilot mode for tasks that we know how to do but don’t need to spend all of our focus on. Routines can do a lot of good for us in our daily lives. For example, a good routine can help our minds and bodies get into specific rhythms that allow us to function at peak performance (so long as those routines are good, healthy routines).

A routine for bedtime will enable you to fall asleep faster and get more consistent, efficient sleep. The Mayo Clinic reports that the no. 1 practice for better sleep is to create—and stick to— a sleep schedule. How do you do this, exactly? Simple: go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends. That is what we call a sleep routine.

Connecting all the Dots: How Muscle Memory and Routines Can Change Your Life & Business

At this point, you have learned a good deal about routines—but to what purpose? You are probably wondering why we have been telling you everything we know about routines, muscle memory, and subconscious thoughts.

To put it simply, we are sharing this information because routines are an impactful part of a cycle called the “Habit Loop.”

In Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book, The Power of Habit, the habit cycle is a process Duhigg outlines as:

Cue – Routine – Reward

This habit cycle is the operating system for all of your habits that encompass your routines.

But here’s the thing—not all habits are created equally.

While some of our routines serve us well—like when you come home and put your car keys on the hook by the back door—others don’t.

For example, if the first thing you do when you come home each day is hang your keys on the rack by the door, that is probably a good habit—you are likely saving yourself the time and effort of having to search the house for your misplaced keys. We would count that as a good habit. But if you have got a habit of searching Amazon because you are bored—just looking, of course—but somehow end up with a package you did not necessarily need landing at your front door every day, that is likely not the best habit for your bank account. (Not to mention that Amazon and other online shopping platforms make it seamless to mindlessly shop—it is so streamlined you do not even have to get your credit card out, check your security code, or worry about inputting your address. But that is a topic for another blog!).

We all have bad habits—that is just part of life. The key is knowing how to break them.

The idea of “just say no” doesn’t always work. Especially if you have a habit that is deeply embedded into the habit loop. At this point, you have conditioned yourself with too many automatic processes and your brain is on that subconscious autopilot mode we talked about. In other words, you can get to the point in the habit loop where you are not actively participating in the decision-making process—your body and brain just sort of do it because they are used to it.

The only way to not seek the reward is to remove the cue in the environment.

Think back to our Amazon example.

Ideally, you would need to eliminate stress or boredom to solve the problem, right? Well, sure—but is that realistic?

The longer the reward cycle continues, the more hardwired it becomes in our brains. The best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. The cycle is already there, the brain is already prepared to autopilot, so, the easiest way is to replace that bad habit with a good one is to change the routine.

Keep the cue and the same reward—just replace the routine.

Cue (stress) Routine (deep breathing exercises) Reward.

Got it?

Some of the most successful and effective leaders have developed strong morning and evening routines—some might even say these routines can be considered rituals.

An article in the Harvard Business Review examined geniuses and how they used routines to help them continue to create and produce great work. They found that routines produce a rhythm that allows us to fully engage in the activities we set before ourselves.

Here are a few tried-and-true steps for being more productive with developing healthy routines.

  1. Keep a journal for two weeks recording every habit and routine that you perform.

  2. List each routine or habit and identify what it is helping you do.

  3. Decide which routines or habits are helping you and which are holding you back.

  4. Replace bad habits with better ones using the cue-routine-reward cycle.

  5. Develop new habits or routines to help with common, everyday tasks. Turn those tasks into muscle memory or unconscious behavior. (Like making your bed as soon as you get up each morning or taking 2-3 minutes as soon as you wake to stretch and meditate or pray).

  6. Stick with a new habit and give yourself a reward for doing so. It will help to rewire the reward center in your brain.

The better you get at performing mundane tasks without consciously thinking about them, the more you can focus on the important things in life!

With that in mind, aren’t you glad that some routines come preprogrammed from the factory? We are talking about breathing, blinking, sneezing, and so on. Think about how impossible and overwhelming it would be to have to consciously think about doing those things all day long!

Just like walking and riding a bike, we had to learn those routines, but now we are not even sure of all the steps we take when we walk.

Make it a habit to develop more habits that will serve you well—a fuller, more productive life is the reward for the muscle memory you train yourself to achieve.

Want to talk about healthy habits? Need more information about how to design more productive routines in your life? Reach out to us at and we will proudly assist you on your quest!

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