I sat next to a woman about my age on my latest plane ride who was headed off to med school interviews. We chatted about a variety of things until an alarm went off on her phone. A bit embarrassed and apologetic, she said she needed to pray and had to do so in a certain direction. I realized then she was Muslim and immediately began to provide some space for her to turn around (the seats seem to get smaller each plane I’m on). This vignette has stuck with me as it proved to be a powerful example of a habit that I used to have that I simply don’t anymore. Praying used to be something I did daily and reflexively. It made me reflect on the fact that since moving away from religion I’ve lost a number of daily habits. Instead of reading part of the bible or a book on religion at night, I respond to emails and read random short articles. If I’m lucky, I’ll pick up a book. In the morning, rather than praying or reading over one of the quotes I had pasted on my bed frame I drink coffee. Even the act of drinking coffee is a habit I’m trying to break (don’t like being dependent on something like that). What daily habits do I have? Do I have any? Brushing to teeth came to mind but that didn’t seem to be anything incredible. Checking my email.. Again, boring and not necessarily a good habit or one that only happens once per day (more like 8164826 times per day). 

Religion is an incredible habit former and will power builder. Sports provided me with a similar outlet. Some habits from each have rolled over but I’m realizing each is a bit of a watered down version. In a weird sense, I was left with this thought of “what habits can non religious people have?!” Further, what noble, for lack of a better term, habits can “normal” people have? 

I recently finished some of Seneca’s writing where he reflects on the shortness of life. As all philosophers do, he muses over how best to spend ones time and repeatedly emphasizes how important it is to have balance in all things. Part of balance is flexibility to adapt and not be swayed too far in one direction or another. Where do habits fit into this? For me, I focus now more on goals rather than habits as it allows me to be flexible and adjust as needed while still work on building the foundation I need in place daily. 

Activity vs achievement. This idea was first introduced to me at an all American rugby camp I somehow stumbled into (I had no business being there). The concept though is brilliant: never mistake activity for achievement. The same when applied to habits leads me to realize that habits can either fall into the activity camp or achievement camp. How do you make sure habits you do have lead to achievement? The only way I can think to combat this is through reflection and goal setting as reflection helps you evaluate the past and goal setting helps you reorient yourself towards the future. 

Habits though aren’t defined or meant to be terribly flexible. They are supposed to be routine at a certain time and done in a certain way repeatedly. This is also what makes them easy to follow and stick to. After all, that’s what makes a habit the essence of what it is. Again this leads me to good habits that I can instill into my life. 

How do you make a habit? Typically, the advice I’ve read has been to be specific (don’t just say read but read for 30 minutes), set aside a time (9pm or 9am and not just “each day”),  and set aside a place ( in the living room). Basically, you want to make it as easy as possible to follow. Further, the easier it is for you to make that decision to perform the new habit the more likely you will and the less mentally depleted you’ll be (lower cognitive load when the decision is easier). Combined together, this makes a habit easy to complete. Again, I’m led back to the question of what habits do I want to create for myself as I can’t think of many that I have. As a follow up question, do I even want to create habits? I ask this because each habit has a value statement attached to it. Reading as a habit is good. Smoking is not. Thanks to nicotine smoking is often an easier habit to create! Obviously, I don’t want to create easy and harmful habits but I also don’t want to get caught up in doing something “good” daily just because I feel the need to have habits. After all, habits do just seem to be another aspect of control humans push upon themselves and the world.

What habits do you have? Are they activity or achievement habits? What habits are you trying to break? What habits are you trying to create?

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