We are what we repeatedly do (Quote of the Month, August 2010)
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
– Will Durant’s summation of Aristotle’s ideas
Habit: an acquired pattern of behavior that often occurs automatically.
We are all on autopilot most of the time. Anyone who has ever learned how to drive a car knows that at first it was very difficult, because you had to observe and think about so many things at the same time and coordinate your actions accordingly. It felt like you may never master driving. But after some practice, things got easier as you didn’t have to think so much anymore. Your nervous system learned new motions that have been repeated over and over again and connected them together, so that when you, for example, want to turn left, you don’t have to think about all the details – you do it on autopilot, automatically. When you have really mastered driving, you can even be thinking about some completely different subject and don’t register anything you are doing, but your driving is completely safe anyways. Only when something unusual happens in front of you, does your attention come back to the road.
We can do many, many things that we don’t need to think about consciously. We can be walking on a street and at the same time talking with someone on our mobile phone. Not a single time in between, we think about how to move our legs. However, walking is a task that demands very complicated and coordinated muscle moves that first had to be learned. As I read somewhere, most babies need about 1000 hours of practice from the time they pull themselves upright to the time they can walk alone.
We do not have the capacity to think about everything consciously. Our brains can only think about a few things simultaneously. Therefore it is crucial that we have the ability to develop habits that we can do automatically, without thinking about how to do it consciously (so, we can be focused on other things). Once we learn something and it becomes a habit (like walking and driving) it usually stays with us forever. However, this is a double-edged sword, as habits can be either good or bad, and they are very difficult to change.
Intense thinking takes time and energy. When you study for your exams you have to have breaks in between, because mental work is indeed work. You get tired from it. We can say furthermore that we only have a limited amount of willpower (unwavering strength of will to carry out our wishes), because conscious decision-making process also takes time and burns energy, so it is neither practical nor possible to be making decisions about everything. Most of our life is therefore governed by our habits, which are difficult to resist. This is why, it is important to keep cultivating good habits and avoid bad habits from developing.
You can change your life by changing you habits. In the long term, this is the only way, really. You can change your life for a day by sheer willpower, but you cannot sustain that kind of change, unless it becomes a habit, as old patterns of behavior will come back the next day. You can overcome old patterns by focusing your willpower to where it counts the most: to developing new, better habits. If you would dedicate some time every day to developing good habits, then your life would become significantly better pretty soon.