Force of Habit


At first, I didn’t even notice I was doing it.

I was in the restroom, getting ready to do…umm, restroom things. The holster my M&P usually rides in (an appendix carry rig from Crossbreed) rides somewhat high on my waistband and, consequently, has a tendency to flip over my belt when I undo my jeans. So I’ve gotten into the habit of grabbing it with one hand, lest it dump my gun out onto the floor at an inopportune time.

But the other day, while doing the dance of clothing and gun belt, I noticed something interesting. When I’d taken hold of my gun, my right index finger had – without conscious thought – settled on the top of my belt, holster, and jeans, extended straight out just as as it would have lain along the side of the frame were my pistol in my hand. The habit I’d drilled into myself, the one I drill into those I teach, held firm even with a holstered gun. “Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you’re ready to fire,” the little voice inside my head said, and automatically my muscles moved to obey.

Our habits may develop from conscious and deliberate repetition, or from mindless and inattentive patterns of behavior. Like the basic rules of firearms safety, they may keep us out of trouble. Or, like the conditioned Code White inattentively unaware state that so many people practice, they may lead us right into the mouth of the lion. For good or ill, they’re the conditioned responses we fall back on in times of stress. And, once habits have taken root in the soil of our minds, they require determined effort to uproot and change.

In the heat of the moment, we humans are shockingly good at rationalizing away carelessness and inattention and corner-cutting. “Oh, well,” the lazy monkey part of our brain tells us, “surely it won’t matter just this one time. We’ll do better next time, honest!”

Alas, Lazy Monkey is the product of thousands of years of evolutionary programming, and she lies to us. Once we get into her ways of being, once those become our conditioned responses, we won’t do better next time. “You did it before and everything was fine,” the voice will tell our future selves. “What’s the harm in doing it again?” Day by day, one action at a time, Lazy Monkey’s choices will become our conditioned responses. And then, the one time when it REALLY matters, the time when lives are at stake, we’ll fall back on those patterns one too many times, and somebody will get hurt.

This is why I work so hard to instill good habits – of firearms safety, of proper shooting technique, of situational awareness.  This is why, when I teach, I visit and revisit the Four Safety Rules until my students are, perhaps, just a bit sick of hearing about them. This is why I talk and write about being aware and prepared, and it’s why I am just a tiny bit single minded in practicing what I preach. I know myself, you see, and I know what it takes to keep Lazy Monkey at bay. I know the responses I’ve trained well enough that I can trust them, well enough to even be a bit surprised by them from time to time.

Because, at the end of the day, that’s what being safe is all about. It’s about eliminating unpleasant surprises, whether that’s the stranger who sneaks up on you unnoticed while you’re absorbed in your Facebook chat, or whether it’s the horrible and too-often tragic BANG that accompanies a bullet exiting the barrel of an “unloaded” gun.

When the stakes are high, when those kinds of surprises are the precursors to tragedy, you’ve got to be able to trust yourself to do the right thing. And you’ll only be able to do that if you’ve practiced, trained, conditioned yourself to do the right things. If you have to try to decide what to do when Lazy Monkey is screaming her chorus in your head, you’re sunk.

How about you? What patterns have you consciously conditioned yourself for? How do you resist Lazy Monkey’s siren call? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.


  1. Another excellent article, Tammy. 🙂
    It takes about 100 repetitions of a single action to create a new habit. This, of course, varies widely according to the complexity of the action and the motivation of the learner. The thing that is so hard to get around is that it can take as many as 10,000 repetitions to UNLEARN a habit and replace it with a different one. Great incentive to learn to do things right the first time!

    I spend a good deal of time in every class evaluating the habits of the students, and advising them on the importance of forming good ones. Lots and lots of special sessions are spent with students who are working hard to overcome bad habits.

    Had to laugh this morning after I took out the trash to the burn barrel. Came back in the house for the “Bic” long nosed lighter and realized when I got out to the barrel again that I had my finger straight on the frame over the “trigger.” I’ve also found myself doing that with anything having a trigger.

    Call me obsessive, I don’t mind. 🙂 That’s one habit I don’t ever intend to mess with.

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