Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Dangers of Autopilot

Following a recent discussion on #lrnchat around habits it was clear (for once) that I actually agreed with the majority of learn-chatters that when we fall into habits it can hamper learning.  I'd go quite a bit further on this one and say that those habits we form tend to lead us into a form of autopilot.  What I mean by that is by living our lives by doing what we always do we tend to disengage from thinking about things - it becomes a subconscious act similar to breathing.  Autopilot through our work means that we don't think so much we just do, and that means that the opportunities to learn and improve are obviously reduced.
Thing is we all have habits, these aren't necessarily good or bad, they're just things we do over and over to allow us to drop our concentration levels.  There's plenty of information out there and self-help books that talk about how to break habits and form 'good' habits, but I'm not sure I subscribe to any habits as a best state to be in.  It boils down to one simple concept and that is that if you're doing something out of routine (however positive some may view it) you're not fully awake, and then you're not fully in a position to learn and improve what you're doing.  Let's give an example here, if you were to form a good (?) habit of spending the first 30 minutes of your working day going through a planning exercise to prioritise what you would do for the day you may actually miss something that required instant actions to take advantage of - or maybe some feedback that would allow you to change your approach to that planning, or even just answering a call that would mean saving hours of work later in the day.  It doesn't mean that planning is a bad thing, it doesn't even mean that having the intention to do the work then is a bad thing, it just means you maintain the flexibility to change.  You can only do this if you don't routinely enter your planning stage by shutting off your active mind to other things.

I hear a huge amount of criticism of multi-tasking and some of it I think is justified - there really are some tasks that require your full attention.  But as a general concept I think keeping an active mind that's open to more inputs is a good thing not a bad.  When I'm at work I have my door open and welcome interruptions even when I'm deep in work - I can usually hit my stride again fairly quickly and I like to be there for others - the interactions they bring often contribute to the work I'm on and can lead me in new directions.  That doesn't mean I always work this way - sometimes we get very tight timelines, sometimes I say 'I'm into something right now - give me an hour please' and sometimes I even hide somewhere else.  I also don't push paperclips aound the desk (the habit of clockwatching) when I'm done or can't concentrate I change what I'm doing, regardless of the schedule (I don't make it a habit to walk out of meetings, but yeah, otherwise I subscribe to if it isn't working then look at alternatives).  What I do isn't perfect and I'm open to improving it, that's the point though, when we set rigid in our habits they stop us from looking for improvements.  My last post was on the idea that continuous improvement needs to be continuous, that means always having our eyes and ears open to the way things could be improved.

A great example of this was when a student inadvertently walked into a meeting I was having with a head of school on Friday.  The student had no idea who we were and thought it was a break out room and had a quick chat with us - he then went on to tell us about two courses he had or was studying - one was great and the other was poor and he gave us some unsolicited feedback on what was going on.  If we had announced this was a meeting and turfed him out, we'd have missed that great feedback.  If we'd have been on autopilot, we wouldn't have even had a situation he could have walked in to and again we would have missed out.

Learning is pervasive.  It's in everything we do if we have our minds open to it.  I know some people schedule time for their learning, I can see some sense in scheduling time to learn a particular thing, but the truth is learning is (like most things it seems) an attitude.  That means if you do schedule learning for 2pm on a Monday and a learning opportunity pops up on Friday do you just ignore it?  If you see something when you're in the gym on a Wed lunchtime do you park it because it's not part of your schedule? This may be good news for those of you who like or have to stick to schedules, because if learning is an attitude it can happen at any time even if you're life is heavily structured.  The key is that you have to be prepared to break those routines if you want to get the most out of learning and that can be difficult.

Thinking back to my teaching days, you had to schedule what was being taught in each lesson, but I never let that stop me from realising great opportunities such as responses or ideas from my students that could take us in new directions. Sure it was a pain and I may have to jig the schedule around, but the gains of taking those inputs and external factors into consideration way outweigh the inconvenience of the scheduling.

In summary this isn't a fully formed idea I have and I welcome your ideas.  I think habits are a dnagerous thing, particularly when they take over and you don't bother thinking and observing what is going on around you.