Habits are a part of life that most people minimize. They assume when someone says habit that they are talking about some bad habit they picked up like smoking or biting one’s nails.
But habit is much more than that. Habit is how life operates. Animals rely on habits to behave and think the way they do. Humans rely more on habit than rational thought, allowing our decisions to form patterns and then utilize those patterns to dictate future actions.
William James, the father of American Psychology, says in his book, Habit, “When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits. In wild animals, the usual round of daily behavior seems a necessity implanted at birth in animals domesticated, and especially in man, it seems, to a great extent, to be the result of education. The habits to which there is an innate tendency are called instincts; some of those due to education would be called acts of reason. It thus appears that habits covers a very large part of life, and that one engaged in studying the objective manifestations of mind is bound at the very outset to define clearly what its limits are.”
Our minds are incredibly powerful. Sometimes when someone starts to see how much of our life is controlled by habit assume that means our conscious minds are less powerful.
But this isn’t the case. In fact, it is all wrapped up together. Psychologists spend their time trying to separate and study these areas but the reality is that the power of our mind is in our ability to program it with certain thoughts and behaviors that will ultimately become automated responses.
We all have incredible power to create routines and habits that take us where we want to go in life. But this doesn’t usually happen automatically and needs us to do some programming in order to see results.
Sometimes this programming happens when we are children. Our parents force habits into us. They develop a set bedtime and a nighttime routine. They wake us up at the same time so we can make it to school on time. They force us to sit at the dinner table until we eat our vegetables.
These are all examples of ways that our parents outwardly work to develop our habits to make sure we are on the right track.
Utilizing positive habits such as these, often rely on developing a healthy respect of the future instead of the present moment. We value what the future holds if we continue with this behavior.
Going to bed late one night won’t ruin your life. Skipping vegetables this meal won’t destroy your health. If we miss 1 day of school, there will likely be minimal long-term consequences.
But take any of those same actions and have them form a pattern and recur over and over again. Suddenly all of them can become destructive in life.
Forming habits is easier when the result is instant pleasure than when the result is instant discomfort but future pleasure.
This means that if left to chance, our habits would likely form based on a bunch of immediate desires. We want to continue watching TV late into the night instead of following the bedtime routine and getting to sleep at a reasonable time.
We would rather eat our favorite foods; often those are not healthy ones. Over time that can wreak havoc on our health.
The easier habit to form is the one that provides an immediate reward and a future consequence.
So as we journey from being a child, mostly being told what to do from our parents, to forming our own way, we don’t always realize the power of these habits.
I certainly didn’t realize their importance. I went off to college and developed a host of new bad habits. I didn’t emphasize the future and instead focused on what do I feel like doing right now.
It wasn’t until years later when I started to study systems and habits that I realized how flawed this approach was. Suddenly the future I disregarded was here, with all of the consequences of my past decisions formed into new bad habits.
Successful people tend to have a better control on their habits. They don’t simply follow instant gratification; they plan and develop behaviors that will help them in the future. The more they do this, the more they reap the rewards later, while everyone else pays the price for previous poor decisions and behavior.
We all can have control over the powerful habits in our life. But we can’t just let them form automatically. We have to take control of the development and reinforcement of these habits to make sure they are taking us in the direction we choose, not just following previous patterns of behavior that can quickly take us off course, further convincing us to sacrifice the future for pleasure now.