Updated: Apr 30
The power of habit has been well understood since the times of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle, perhaps one of the first great thinkers to make use of habit in his philosophical system, believed that in order to become truly virtuous one must habitually perform acts of virtue. It is not enough to do a single daily deed. This would neither mean that you are good or will come to embody goodness. The only way to develop into a truly good person, Aristotle argued, was to form the habit of doing virtuous acts.
‘Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.’
(The Nicomachean Ethics, Book II)
Habit can exert immensely powerful effects. However, from the outset, so as to avoid possible future discouragement, we must understand that it is not easy to establish and doesn’t yield instant results. It pays pitifully small returns over many months and years and the changes it can bring about occur imperceptibly. Habit is like a new plantation of fruiting trees; it’s not until many years later that they bear their delicious fruit. If you find that metaphor unpalatable consider the sculpture working on a form. According to legend Michelangelo chipped, tapped and scrapped at that recalcitrant slab of Venetian marble for 8 hours every day for two years. ‘Month after month he worked night and day, often catching a few hours sleep on the floor,’ (Capretti, 2006). Each morning when entering the Opera del Duomo I bet he would survey that statue and sigh at its excruciatingly slow emergence from its concrete chrysalis. ‘When,’ I can hear Michelangelo asking, in an air of suppressed exasperation, ‘When will you break free from your cold catacomb?’ But he knew full well that the only way to unleash the masterpiece of his imagination, to liberate David from the stone, was to maintain the daily habit of diligence and hard work. The power of habit, coupled, of course, with Michelangelo’s singular artistic brilliance, eventually resulted in the creation of the most iconic statue ever sculpted.
Habit, though perhaps to a less grandiose extent to the example above, can bequeath to us a similar boon. Depending on the habit that we strive to cultivate – the habit of health and exercise, the habit of knowledge acquisition, the habit of playing a musical instrument – over time it can exert a profound force completely reshaping our bodies, or altering the architecture of our minds, radically changing our thought process and perceptual outlook, or enhancing our abilities and skill-set. But before we consider how to utilise this latent power let’s pop it under the microscope and take a closer look at what it is exactly.
What’s habit when it’s at home?
Well it certainly isn’t running an automated pre-program, or completing a series of actions without conscious engagement, as would, say, a mindless robot or other algorithmic system. And it’s not just about establishing a routine that is followed without rhyme or reason. These are among the most ubiquitous misperceptions. Even the leading theorist in the field of habit view it as little more than mindless ‘repetition’ and that if we repeat an action enough times it will become automatic and thus effortless. But if we look deeper into what habit is we might see it as something else, something more than mere mindless repetition.
As I see it habit is an impetus for action; it’s that spark that ignites the fires that set us in motion. Think of it as the Sysiphusian shove that gets the ball rolling. And as that eternally damned character from Greek mythology could attest, it is the initial phase of any act, action or undertaking that is the hardest – that requires the most effort, will and determination. Think back to a time when your alarm clock sounded and instead of jumping straight out of bed ready to greet another day you chose to hit the snooze button, roll over and catch some more zees. . . . The alarm clock sounds a second time and a second time you hit snooze. Your bed is just too warm and too comfortable and it’s cold out and excuses are easy. . . . When that infernal alarm rings a third time you know now you really must get up. But you don’t, instead you embark on a protracted procrastination jaunt and proceed to talk yourself out of doing what you know you should.
Mark Twain said that ‘The secret of getting ahead is getting started’. Of course he was absolutely right, but then it doesn’t take a genius to work that much out. What Mr. Twain failed to do, and this is a common trait amongst those who spout sagacious comments, was to be so kind as to divulge what that secret is precisely. When that alarm sounds we know that we ought to be getting up, to be getting started, but the hedonist lurking within somehow impedes action and we find ourselves locked in that odd state of limbo where we are unable to respond to the dictates of our rational mind. It’s as though we have been put under a spell. We may ask: Can the spell be broken? Can the hedonist be thwarted? Or are we forever at its mercy? The answers to those questions are as follows: Yes! the spell can be broken. Yes! the hedonist can be beaten. And No! we are certainly not forever at the tyrant’s mercy as we possess the power to become our own masters. How? Through the cultivation of good habits!
How to form a habit
It goes without saying – though I’m going to say it – before putting habit to use we must firstly decide what positive change we desire to bring about. To demonstrate how habit can be effectively applied I will use the previous example of snooze button abuse. So let’s say you’re an inveterate sloth and getting out of bed is an agonising ordeal that you dread. But you’ve come to realise that, as a consequence of your inability to arise at the appointed time, you’re throwing 30 minutes down the drain every morning – 3.5hrs a week! 14hrs a month!! 168hrs a year!!! The thought of squandering nearly six days a year on snoozes inspires you to take action. You resolve to change.
How, then, might habit be used to drive impetus for action, or override the automatic impulse to hit that time-filching snooze button? We have at our disposal a number of methods that would work to severe that pernicious impulse. Below I have in brief outlined two.
· Method 1: Set your alarm 30 minutes before you’re due to get up. If you should be getting up at, say, 7am, but you’re snoozing until 7:30, set your alarm for 6:30. By doing this you can still satisfy your snooze button addiction but with the added bonus of not accumulating ‘time debt’. I know that this method sounds a bit simple, a bit of an egg-suck, but I use it to great effect.
· Method 2: Day on snooze day off snooze. Research suggests that if you attempt to reform an addiction with sheer brute willpower you stand a high statistical probability of relapsing. This accounts for why when smokers attempt to quit without firstly reducing consumption, substituting with patches or seeking support, nearly 90% fail before the end of the first week. Thus to make a lifestyle change or reform a habit we must aim to do so slowly, over time whilst ensuring to exercise great patience.
· Habit is impulse to action; the turning of the ignition that gets our motors started
· Habit can be a force for good or bad: it can help us remodel our lifestyle, our outlook or our abilities or skill-set for the better – but it has its dark side
· Habit is a gradual process of change and reformation and its effects may take many months or years to surface
· With that last point in mind I advise that you get started!
Some examples of good habits to form
Sleeping Patterns Daily Exercise Diet & Nutrition
Aristotle (N.D) The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford World’s Classics. New York.
Capretti, E. (2006) Michelangelo. David and Charles. Great Britain.