Superstition vs. good habit: The difference might be less than you think

In 2010, The New York Times published an article titled, “Does Lucky Underwear Improve Athletic Performance?” The article is about how “Michael Jordan wore the same under-shorts from his national-championship-winning University of North Carolina days under his Chicago Bulls uniform. Serena Williams won’t change her socks at tournaments she’s winning.”

The article accuses these athletes of being superstitious. Are intentional practices superstitious or good habits?

In early May, my family is participating in a half marathon and 5K race in northern Wisconsin. For the past three years, I have been following a consistent running routine. However, this is my first organized race. The anticipated stress of the number of people participating and the competitive spirit of the event is creating anxiety for me.

During the preparation of the event, to combat my fears, I am creating control, including wearing the same outfit during every conditioning run, eating the same foods before each run and running at the same time every day. I don’t want any surprises at the event, so I am trying to replicate exactly what I will do on race day.

Isn’t this the same thing Michael Jordan and Serena Williams did during their events? Continue doing what is working so that during the stressful game or match, they are not thinking about how a different pair of underwear or socks are fitting. Their uniform is one less decision to make and one less detail to focus on. They know what works, so why change it?

What good habits do you have in your workday? Do you have a system when you get to work and log into your computer? Or maybe your system isn’t to turn on your computer immediately when you get to work. Maybe you use this time for valuable thinking projects or professional development.

In his book, “Atomic Habits,” James Clear defines a productive system called “habit stacking.” A habit is a “recurring, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.” The benefit of a healthy habit is the efficient use of thought and energy. You don’t need to think about the route you’ll take home from work because it is ingrained in your memory. You don’t waste time reviewing maps, considering options or making U-turns.

To habit stack, you need to find an existing, successful habit and then choose another action to stack on top of the original behavior. I have stacked the “pick up mail” habit on top of my “drive home” habit. Once I reach my neighborhood, my car automatically stops at the mailbox to retrieve the day’s deliveries.

To take this system a step further, habit stack for a reward. After performing the stacked habit on top of the original habit, choose a third habit as your reward, such as a 15-minute walk, sitting down or standing up at your desk or working on a project you’re excited about.

An example of a healthy “habit stack with a reward” could be your above-mentioned morning routine. Consider what you do when you arrive at your desk. Most people log into their computers, open the email application and answer unread emails. This process could consume one to two hours of your morning. Instead, log into your computer, spend the next hour working on a project that is often procrastinated, then open email and reply to messages. Use email as a reward after a project is complete. How good will you feel to have a looming project completed during the first hour of your day?

When should we intentionally create a new habit or habit stack? When we choose a new goal and are challenged to implement it.

I chose to implement the above morning routine years ago when I was frustrated with how much time I spent catering to emails. By habitually stacking the email task after a project, I spent less time in email throughout the day and was more productive.

No one can convince me to change my morning routine because I have found great success in this habit. Why would I change a good system that brings me success? Or am I just superstitious?