Good Habits Make Better Riders

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

If your mom was anything like my mom, any discussion about “habits” was usually 
referring to my “bad” ones… leaving doors open, elbows on the table, etc. She even 
warned me about the possible adverse affects of some “keep making that face and it will 
stay that way.” But not all habits are bad. Merriam-Webster contains nine different 
definitions of habit. The habits our moms referred to were “an acquired mode of behavior 
that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” However, as I’ve learned through the 
years, habits can be a good thing, especially when we seek to establish habits with a 
different definition “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic 
exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance.”

I once read an article that claimed a behavior could become habit if repeated for 21 days. 
Since then, I’ve seen more recent studies claiming a much broader range that may well 
depend on the person as well as the behavior itself. However, there is no denying that 
repeating a particular behavior over and over will eventually lead to some level of 
“automaticity” where it is not “hard to do” or can be done “without thinking”. I’ve seen this 
in my own personal life. As a Marine, we were expected to stay in shape. Some tours of 
duty made this more difficult than others, but I noticed that once I was in a groove, it 
almost felt wrong not to get my workout in – the habit became its own source of 
motivation. I also learned that it took much less time to get out of a good habit – miss 
workouts for a few weeks because you have “more important things to do” and suddenly 
your schedule seems to fill up with plenty of things more important than running or lifting 
weights.

During my flying career, we relied upon habits as part of our training. Things like 
checklists are really nothing more than a repeatable series of instructions. Over time, 
those checklists start to become habit. And like my workouts, once you reach a point of 
automaticity, missing a step becomes very noticeable and feels “wrong.” Besides the 
obvious function of the checklist – a written reference for completing the steps of a task – 
the constant repetition created a habit that served as a back-up to my ability to read and 
execute the actual checklist. In my final tours, I flew multi-seat aircraft and even our 
communications cadence in the cockpit was based on a repeatable format – again, to 
eventually become habit where omission of some phrase or task became instantly 
noticeable.

What does all of that have to do with motorcycles? There are many aspects of riding, as 
simple as starting your bike, that benefit from becoming habit. Ever ride off with the 
petcock turned off? Side stand down? Ever find yourself changing oil and suddenly 
realize you put the drain plug back in without ensuring you accounted for the old crush 
washer? Any of those activities will benefit from forming a habit. Start your bike the same 
way each time – make yourself do it the same way. Use the service manual as your 
written checklist and insert extra notes so you won’t forget checking for that washer. The 
same goes for your actual riding – when you come up to a turn, do you always remember 
to pick a turn point? Look for the apex? Look for your exit point? Actual saddle time 
benefits from habits as well.

Recently, I had the displeasure of relearning these lessons. I do some consulting work for 
the Navy/Marine Corps and generally commute to my office in San Diego on my 
motorcycle. A few weeks back I rode to work on my Buell – which I don’t usually use for 
commuting. Although I don’t normally lock the handlebars at work – we have a fairly 
secure lot – for some reason I decided it would be a great idea. I turned the bars, rolled 
the key to the “Lock” position, and walked off. I’m sure some of you have already figured 
out what happened… “Lock” was really “Park”, and I had no habit pattern established to 
either visually check the key or better yet – visually check the tail light. Sure enough, at 
the end of the day my battery was dead. In fact, it was so discharged I could not revive it. 
The only silver lining to the story is that my new Yuasa has 30% more cranking power 
than the stock Harley battery… although my wallet has fewer Andrew Jackson’s in it so 
not sure it was a fair trade.

So make your mom proud. Establish some good habits and become a safer and better 
rider. .. And get your elbows off the table!

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