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.
Last weekend I was reminded two times that life is not forever. That it will end some day and no one knows about that day or hour.
First, I discovered that a dead cat is lying in my backyard. It was hidden under a hedge so I haven’t found out this (I rarely go there) until my neighbour complained about the smell. It was a pretty nasty sight as it must had been lying there for a few days. I called the Bureau of Sanitation and they sent someone to clean it up. I don’t know whose cat it was or why it died.
Second, I played football (soccer) with my friend and some other people that he knows. I rarely play football, but since I was invited to the match, I went. It was the day of World Cup final (Netherlands vs. Spain) so we intended to watch the game on TV after our own match.
Our game was good and fun. However, I am out of shape, so I got tired pretty fast and played as a goalkeeper for the second half. After the match we watched World Cup final on TV and Spain became the new world champion. It was a nice event, the whole evening.
However, later when I got home and stepped out of my car, I got abnormal heart rhythm. I am no doctor, but I think it was atrial fibrillation. I had similar experiences a few times in my life, even as a teenager. Every time it went away after a few minutes. I believe this time I got this episode of abnormal heart rhythm because I stretched too much at the football match. I should do regular physical activity every day, not doing nothing for two weeks and then stretch like that.
The interesting part is that while I was having abnormal heart rhythm I saw a shooting star (I was sitting outside, on my doorsteps, and waiting for my heart to go back to normal rhythm). It was inevitable that after seeing that meteor that lasted only a second or even less, before it burned out, while at the same time having this medical situation, I started thinking about life and death.
For a long time I have been behaving like I will live forever. I’ve been procrastinating on things that I want to do as if I have all the time in the world to do them later. I had big plans for my future, but that was it – it was for the future. I shouldn’t even say I had plans. A plan implies that you have a concrete goal and a list of actions that will lead you there, which I never had.
Procrastination can be an expression of fear of change – whether fear of failure or fear of success as well. We may dream of change, but at the same time fear it, and therefore avoid it. That was my case for most of my life. As long as I was very young I had been successfully deluding myself that I really do want change but the time is not right yet – I have to learn more, before I can change my life.
Well, I am not very young any more. I am not old yet, but I can’t delude myself anymore that postponing changes into the future will EVER work. The only time that change can happen is now. We cannot change in the future. If we wait too long, we may never change. We may die before we change.
So, the questions are, do I really want change and if so, am I going to start it now? In fact, this is only one single question.