Notes on Habits from William James pt. 2


The previous post explained in detail what habits are and how important they become once we reach adulthood. Part two of the conversation lies in understanding how one uses this theoretical knowledge to make their lives better. As previously mentioned, habit is the fundamental concept of our well-being and an improper fluctuation in either physical or mental habits can result in illness and suffering. Before I start the analysis, I would like to mention that the same habits, if reinforced for a long time, are near impossible to charge or revert. Therefore, instead of changing a very antique and unnecessary habit, one must reinforce new ones so that the old ones gradually decrease on their own. There won't be a discussion about habit-building regarding substance abuse, though some applications may be used if they suit the reader.

When considering making new habits, one must "put [themselves] in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge" as William James puts it. So there are three main things here: 1. Create a condition, physically and mentally, to access the modalities of new activity, and naturally forget about the old tendencies. In short, create more cues that will reinforce the drive to explore new ideas and build new networks. 2. Reduce distractions or cues that create a relapse into a previous maladaptive behavior or habit. If you were to go on a diet, you wouldn't keep the jar of cookies or the cheesecake in your refrigerator anymore. Those are easy mental cues to drive you into giving up and going back to eating unhealthy. Instead, you would surround yourself with fruits and vegetables that will induce a new habit. It is important to not go too hard on yourself as that could exhaust one's willingness to try anything new at all. Instead, there must be a natural inclination or exploration towards the desired goal. 3. Make a public announcement as that is likely going to consolidate the idea that you are firm on your convictions. There are hundreds and thousands of thoughts and ideas running in our minds and we hardly take any of them seriously. Yet, when there is an interaction with someone and you share one of your goals with them, you are likely to think twice before giving up on that drive. Guilt is one of the most uncomfortable emotions for humans. And when there is a dissonance between what one says and what one does, regardless of how good they may be at lying, there is an underlying sense of guilt and shame hidden behind the neutral face. In short, sharing a goal with someone else is a very effective way of mentally motivating yourself to do an act.

In the process of making new habits, one can encounter many problems and one of them is the creation of exceptions. As James states, "every gain on the wrong side undoes the effect of many conquests on the right." Every exception that comes in the process of building habits elongates the entire process twice each time. Therefore, a single exception can be the reason for falling further down the rabbit hole of inaction. Though, we mustn't fall down the slippery slope and say that all habits require a perfect and utmost amount of effort and practice, as some breaks and exceptions are necessary. Yet, the general rule is that the greater the number of exceptions, especially at the beginning of building a new habit, the lower the chance of really consolidating that habit as a natural act. The irony of habits is that it takes a whole lot of time to build them, but once they are built, not even a little bit of conscious effort is required for them to continue. That is the power of the nervous system, which requires enough gas in the beginning but once it gets on the track, it runs for quite some time.

Exceptions aren't the only barriers to the formation of habits, there is also a continuity issue. Oftentimes, individuals will do an act and never suffer an exception, yet they are still unable to convert the act into a habit. The reason is that they suffer from discontinuity. Exceptions create short moments of comfort and can be easily fixed if the individual reflects on his actions. But, discontinuity for longer times can impair the individual's attention and motivation far more drastically. On the other hand, if one makes it a goal to act on their convictions the moment they think of them, and continue to do this for long periods, they are likely to succeed in their lives. The goal is to not think yourself out of a positive habit and reduce the chances of relapsing into a negative habit. And one can only do this by making sure the process isn't delayed and by acting on the goal as soon as the thought comes to mind. Oftentimes, people think the desired result is likely to increase their willingness to do an activity, but this is a misconception. What increases the likelihood one behaves in a certain way is how repetitive their actions are and how continuous they have been practicing them. Action is the predecessor to habit and is a greater predictor of habit than the mere result, which is often evaluated differently each time depending on mood and other factors.

The best way to build good habits is by creating a mindset of doing something challenging each day and seizing each opportunity for improvement. By having a growth mindset, the individual looks to improve each moment of the day and mindfully does his actions regardless of whether he likes them or not. This indirect approach, though difficult to exercise on an hourly basis, can be practiced as many times throughout the day. The point of this exercise is to train the mind to constantly search for areas of improvement, even if they may not be urgent. And when things do become urgent, the individual has already built a strong mindset of handling the challenge and building a difficult habit. This process of inoculating various habitual actions daily is similar to building immunity. Just as an antibody is presented to a person's immune cells to reduce their chances of getting an infection, a mindset trained to handle difficult situations helps the individual cope better when they do end up facing real challenges. We don't wait for the infection to get the vaccine, instead, we take precautions beforehand, thus the same is the case for building good habits. We build good habits, even if they may seem unnecessary so that when a challenge does come in the way, we have the faculties needed to respond strongly and confidently.

The 25-5 method mentioned in the book Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great way to prioritize and focus on the things that matter the most in life. Essentially, you start by writing out 25 things that you need to work on or want to build a habit of doing, and then you choose the first 5 ones as the most important ones. We have many things we want to work on, but the first 5 ones that come to mind naturally are the ones that matter the most to us. Thus, instead of trying to improve in all areas, it is better to start with the first 5 and then gradually move on to the rest. Furthermore, breaking each goal down into smaller and replicable steps is also important. For example, if my goal is to run every day for 5 miles, I might start by breaking that down and asking myself why 5 miles and what time daily. These are the basics of making goals, but they are often forgotten in the moment of excitement that is present at the initial stage.

There are 3 Rs that one must reminder while making a habit: reminder, routine, and reward. A reminder is the most important factor as one trigger perpetrates the entire process. Our brains are designed to do an activity simply based on its initial trigger. The next one is routine or the practice of continuity. Having consistent timing is important for the initiation and elongation of habits. Journaling or telling someone about a habit is also another great way to continue existing habits. But the most important factor in creating an identity. Using the reward as a motivator does not help as it may seem like a long time to get the benefits. Instead, having a positive attitude and a growth mindset are the best ways to keep you motivated.

This wraps up the discussion on James' notes on habits. Habits are so vague that these two posts do little justice in presenting the whole picture on them. Yet, I hope these two writings give a basic understanding of what habits are, how they differ from instincts, why habits are important, the basic principles of habit building, and finally some of the practical ways of building new and efficient habits. It is never too late to start a new habit. Though James states in his book that it is near impossible to build habits after the age of 30, he is only presenting the knowledge of his old era. With new brain imaging technology, we now know the full effect of neuroplasticity, which presents that our cerebral development does not end with adolescence or any particular old age. Rather, we continue to grow new synapses and connections throughout our lifetime. Thus, each moment of life has the potential to create a better future and a better lifestyle. For more resources or readings on habits, check out James' Psychology Briefer Course and the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Both of these are excellent resources for providing a scientific understanding of habit formation.