Essentially what I'll be repeating are quotations from the chapter on Habit from William James' monumental Principles of Psychology. It's a chapter I've been wanting to revisit, and I thought making a brief post on the subject would be a good way to refresh my memory. I initially had many of my own notes inserted here, but found I could seldom phrase it better than James himself does. Italics are his quotations.
While I will be highlighting some paragraphs, I recommend you read the full chapter here - http://psychclassics.asu.edu/James/Principles/prin4.htm
Effects of Habit - One of the essential characteristics and goals of habit is to allow an action that takes conscious effort to become something that you instead do naturally without much consideration. Though a platitude, I think this is a quality people often forget about.
"A lock works better after being used some time; at the outset more force was required to overcome certain roughness in the mechanism..."
The goal of developing good habits is to "make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy."
The following is one of my favorite quotations and biggest takeaways from this chapter -
"The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work."
If you start and stick with habits, they will become natural and effortless - and, equally importantly - you can direct the previous effort you put into developing that habit into new endeavors.
Why are habits so important? - For one, that you can avoid the negative archetype - "There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation." If you see similar qualities in yourself, take care to eliminate them as quickly as possible.
Take care to avoid false steps - "Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right."
Again, on Continuity - "One must first learn, unmoved, looking neither to the right nor left, to walk firmly on the straight and narrow path, before one can begin 'to make one's self over again. He who every day makes a fresh resolve is like one who, arriving at the edge of the ditch he is to leap, forever stops and returns for a fresh run." While the analogy could have been better, he is simply saying here do not allow yourself to become Sisyphus, forever forced to push the same boulder up the same hill, day-in, day-out.
Action is more crucial than theory - "No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one's sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one's character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved... One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world -speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers - but let it not fail to take place."
For a simpler phrasing, I like Will Durant's line on the matter - that it is better to write a single song than listen to 100.
Exert yourself often - "Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test... Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast."
Lastly, he gives something similar to an analogy to your subconscious I remember reading a while ago. The author (I forget who it was) compared the subconscious to St. Peter at the pearly gates - St. Peter, here, is the man that has kept track of all your deeds, weighing your virtues and sins. The subconscious works in a similar way. Here are his lines on the matter.
"Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson's play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, 'I won't count this time!' Well! he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out. Of course, this has its good side as well as its bad one. As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out. Silently, between all the details of his business, the power of judging in all that class of matter will have built itself up within him as a possession that will never pass away. Young people should know this truth in advance. The ignorance of it has probably engendered more discouragement and faint-heartedness in youths embarking on arduous careers than all other causes put together."
There are many equally valuable points on habit made within the chapter, including means of sticking with a habit, but I had to be selective given the available space. I highly suggest taking the time to read it.
I know many of you likely wish I had included more of his scientific points on the matter. While I do trust his astounding intellect, and it is likely he had few missteps in this chapter, I did not wish to cite anything that may have been incorrect, given the book is over 100 years old. You may find those thoughts in the link above, as well as other chapters in the book.
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