Why learning new habits is better than perfecting old ones


Learning to cookI was pretty proud of myself after learning how to make chicken scallopini.

I had boldly decided that I wanted to learn how to do more in the kitchen than reheat frozen waffles and so when I came across a recipe that seemed like a challenge I decided to go for it. (It certainly helped that the recipe happened to involve delicious things like pasta, white wine, and lightly breaded chicken.)

I wrote out the instructions on a notecard and followed them closely, relishing the recipe’s technical steps like wrapping a chicken breast in parchment paper, flattening it with a wine bottle, and then dredging it in flour. As I watched the white wine sauce reduce in a hot pan, my mouth started watering with anticipation. The dish was an unequivocal hit, even earning praise from my neighbor who refuses to eat anything that isn’t deep fried.

I was so encouraged by my success that I devoted another 45 minutes to making the dish again the following week. The whole process went much more smoothly the second time around and so the next week I decided to try it again without even a peep at my recipe card. Another success! I had mastered chicken scallopini! I was now obligated to do what any normal guy would do in my situation: Cook the dish to show off for a romantic interest.

On the eve of the big night, I bought all the ingredients, cleaned my apartment, and made sure that the capers in my fridge hadn’t spoiled. Then, like a good millennial, I texted my date to confirm the plans. It was then I was reminded of something that I had entirely forgotten — my date followed a very strict gluten-free diet.

Panic immediately set in. I suppose I could have switched the ingredients or tried to make something else, but I had been so focused on perfecting this one dish, I hadn’t really developed the confidence to do something else, especially now that the stakes seemed so high.

The ‘OK Plateau’

Apparently, I am not the first person to make this mistake. In his book Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer describes this as the “OK Plateau,” a phenomenon where learning to do something by repetition doesn’t actually help develop any broader skills. Foer explains:

In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner tried to answer this question by describing the three stages of acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the cognitive phase, we intellectualize the task and discover new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second, the associative phase, we concentrate less, making fewer major errors, and become more efficient. Finally we reach what Fitts and Posner called the autonomous phase, when we’re as good as we need to be at the task and we basically run on autopilot. Most of the time that’s a good thing.

It certainly wasn’t a good thing as I sheepishly ordered us garden salads and chicken and broccoli for dinner. The lesson here is that while it’s always good to try new things, it’s better to focus on being curious than productive or perfect. This is why many successful people from Oprah to Bill Gates to Warren Buffett have dedicated time in their schedules devoted to reading instead of focusing on short-term goals.

Another important lesson: Be sure to ask for the dietary restrictions of your love interests WELL BEFORE you offer to make them dinner.

Isaac Belmont is an editor, news producer, writer, and ghostwriter based in Queens, New York.

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