October 5, 2012


Every morning I have the same thing for breakfast: two slices of my home made sourdough bread, one with gjetost cheese and one with homemade jam; I occasionally vary this by having waffles for a few days. I've always considered myself rather dull, set in my ways, because of this habit, and others of mine, but it turns out that according to the philosopher/psychologist William James (1842 - 1910), habits, unless they are destructive, are a good thing, in that they free the mind. I read a wonderful excerpt from James' essay "Habit" on Andrew Sullivan's blog The Dish recently:
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of ever bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. 
This except was so interesting and cheering (maybe I'm not such a dull stick in the mud) that it sent me to read the whole essay, which is included in a book I have on my shelf (actually on my table, among a large pile of to-be-read-but-just-started books), The Heart of William James edited by Robert Richardson (you can read the essay at the link above). James posits that habits create physical pathways through the nerve centers and brain:
a simple habit, like every other nervous system event––the habit of snuffling, for example, or of putting one's hands into one's pockets, or of biting one's nails––is, mechanically, nothing but a reflex discharge; and its anatomical substratum must be a path in the system.
Habits are very practical:
..habit simplifies our movements, makes them accurate, and diminishes fatigue.
..habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.
We all have a definite routine manner of performing certain daily offices connected with the toilet, with the opening and shutting of familiar cupboards, and the like. But our higher thought-centres know hardly anything about the matter.
He goes on to describe how a habitual act goes from A to B to C, from beginning to completion without us being conscious of the the chain of action. His description reminded me of something I learned when I used to horseback ride, and which articulates James' ideas perfectly: First we have unconscious incompetence (not knowing what we don't know), then move on the conscious incompetence, then to conscious competence, and finally achieve the goal of unconscious competence. I used to tell my art students this, as it's a useful way of thinking of the learning process.

James believes in a cold turkey treatment of bad habits:
provided one can stand it, a sharp period of suffering, and then a free time, is the best thing to aim at...
Interestingly, he exhorts us not to allow a resolve or "fine glow of feeling" dissipate without action, even if the action is small––"speaking genially to one's grandmother, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers", so that we form a habit of effort. James makes us feel that habits can be a moral force for good in the world, and good in ourselves, if we only work at them.
As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many acts and hours of work.


  1. very encouraging....

  2. This is ia great post on several levels - I tried to find gjetost cheese and was not able to - do you make your own? It sounds wonderful!, I also make bread, the Jim Leahy method - sometimes I think I could live on really good bread and cheese. I am just finishing reading The Power of Habit - a book along the same lines as the essay you describe - it is a fascinating study of how we form and can change habits. Thanks so much for this post.

    1. hi Suzanne, I'm glad you liked the post. Gjetost is a Norwegian goat cheese made from whey; I get it from my local large health food store. The book The Power of Habit sounds interesting.

  3. Interesting post, Altoon. I find myself comforted by daily routine and habits. Removing decisions has been sort of a goal of mine, because the act of painting requires so many decisions in every moment -- I welcome unconscious habits. For example, although I love and appreciate creative fashion choices, I've pretty much set myself onto a jeans, black top, black boots "uniform" to avoid the daily decision of what to wear. I sometimes look enviously at my dogs' chow -- not having to decide what to make for dinner every night would be a welcome relief -- I almost wish there was a "human chow!"

  4. A number of years after I stopped wearing a school uniform, I realized what a blessing in disguise that was. Plus it also flattened out the social and economic strata but that's a different subject. I've had the same haircut for years (and same hairdresser) and eat pretty much the same breakfast and lunch. Staying on track with those meals has been one of the bigger adjustments of retirement, since Mark and I tend to want different kind and size of meals on those two daily occasions. Now I can enjoy my habit as a positive, too!