“All our life is but a mass of habits”

Psychologist and philosopher William James:

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly towards our destiny, whatever the latter may be.

[. . .]

Habit is thus a second nature, or rather, as the Duke of Wellington said, it is ‘ten times nature’—at any rate as regards its importance in adult life; for the acquired habits of our training by that time inhibited or strangled most of the natural impulsive tendencies which were originally there. Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night. Our dressing and undressing, our eating and drinking, our greetings and partings, our hat-raisings and giving way for ladies to precede, nay, even most of the forms of our common speech, are things of a type so fixed by repetition as almost to be classed as reflex actions. To each sort of impression we have an automatic, ready-made response. My very words to you now are an example of what I mean; for having already lectured upon habit and printed a chapter about it in a book, and read the latter when in print, I find my tongue inevitably falling into its old phrases and repeating almost literally what I said before.

So far as we are thus mere bundles of habits, we are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. And since this, under any circumstances, is what we always tend to become, it follows first of all that the teacher’s prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life. Education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists.

— William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, Chapter VIII “The Laws of Habit”

Charles Duhigg is a staff writer at The New York Times and author of the recently published book The Power of Habit about the science of habit formation and its applications among individuals, companies and societies.

Here is a video teaser for his book.

A flowchart for changing habits.

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