“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” – John Dryden, 1631-1700
I came across this quote the other day, and felt that joyful connection I do when somebody else has put words to my vague thoughts. That’s exactly right – we make our habits, conciously or not, and then they become automated things we just do. And those actions shape our lives a lot more than we think.
We’re all born without habits. We’re born with reflexes, but most of what we think of as “natural” things to do are learned – habits from childhood that we don’t see as habits, it’s just background. Take for instance to nod for yes and shake your head for no. I grew up thinking that was the only way to do it – I can’t remember learning it, everybody else were doing it, it felt completely natural. But then as a young adult I came to know people from the middle east – and they signalled no by raising their chin in a quick jerk and yes by shaking their head from side to side (the quick backwards jerk of the head looked to me like a nod, since the chin comes back down again afterwards). Some confusion followed, until I realised what was happening. And also got that flash of understanding: my “natural” headsignals for yes and no are a part of my culture, not a part of being human. Habits. (Since then I try to be observant of when I get surprised about things people do. Because if they surprise me, it’s because they are not doing what I expect them to. Either they are not doing what I would do, or I have some idea of how they should behave that’s incorrect. A great way to become aware of my unconcious habits and possible choices! Not todays subject, though – I’ll leave that for now.)
How you handle life is to a great extent habits, automated reactions to situations. And that’s a good thing. (I noticed why when my brain temporarily forgot how to handle a lot of those automated tasks. I wrote about that in The Power of Habits.) If we were to go through each day actively thinking about everything we do, we would’t get a lot done.
But habits also form our lives in ways that are very difficult to see. The way we eat, the way we excercise – those are things we are aware of have alternatives (hard to miss, since a lot of people try to sell us their versions). But the way we interact with people, the way we handle feelings, the way we handle money – a great part of those are habits too. As well as almost every action we take. The good thing about it is that it means they are all possible to change, if we’re not happy with how we are doing them or the shape they give our lives.
It’s not easy, though… Especially to change habits that have been there forever, the ones that feel instinctive. I think the trick is to remember that it often takes time to change a habit – and not feel like a failure if you slip evey once in a while.
I think of habits like water running over land. When I start a new habit, I make a trace in the soil and start leading the water there. Every time I do my new habit and the water runs through my trace, it clears away some more soil and the trace is more defined. In the beginning I need to watch it, to lead the water (do the habit) conciously, and remove the little twigs and obstacles that come in the way. In time it gets easier, the trace is turning into a stream and now the water is flowing a lot easier and I don’t have to think about the habit as much, it’s getting automated. An old habit, one that I’ve done for years, will be more like a ravine with a river at the bottom – it’s not impossible to divert the water to a new way, but it will take a lot more effort and planning. But: when life is really stormy, my energy goes into handling that and the waters of habit take the absolutely easist route – if there was an old habit, I’m likely to revert to it. Of course! My energy is limited, after all, and my brain is directing it were it’s most acutely needed. But when the crisis is over, if I go back to my new habit again and ignore the old one, with time the old riverbed will grow over and the new one will get deeper. One day the storms will come and the easist way for the water to run is through the new riverbed, and that’s when my new habit has completely changed the landscape of my life.
That’s why in my search for a simpler, more joyful life I focus more on changing my habits than reaching a certain goal. I measure my progress, and that helps me keep on track, but the goal is forming habits that are so ingrained that I don’t need the measuring any more. To make my habits in such a way that they then make me and my life into what I want it to be.