Habits That Blind You — Unearned Wisdom
William James, the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, made an interesting argument about habits. He said that society would fall apart if not for habits. James was not arguing that this was a good thing, it is simply how the world works.
If people were not habitual, business would not be possible, all but chaos would remain. We take habits for granted, but without the automatic execution of certain kinds of behavior, we would have no mental space left over for new problems. This automaticity preserves order for the individual and for society, yet the destruction of habits is equally necessary. Once the problems you have to solve change, so do some of the habits that you have constructed.
A habit is like a tool — efficient for solving a limited range of problems. New problems require the destruction of old foundations. If you are never, under any circumstances, willing to destroy the routines of the past, then you are not a man who wields a tool, but one who is subjugated to the tool that he has built.
Most people are interested in getting rid of bad habits, and learning good habits, but this quest itself is a habit. You are habituated to constantly look for ways of enhancing efficiency. The thing that is not obvious, however, is that such a quest can be blinding. As you are focusing on improving one dimension of life, you become blind to all the other dimensions.
That is the tragic trade-off we must constantly deal with. Each decision we make, even if it seems desirable on the surface, could be the precursor to what is eventually undesirable. Once we have tunnel vision, we rid ourselves of the ability to think holistically, we become too detail-oriented, and life becomes an ordeal which requires constant optimization, rather than an exploration or an adventure.
A habit has the power to enslave you, as well as empower you. Why? What is this mysterious thing about habits that holds such power over us?
First of all, a habit is a technique, directed inwards. What is a technique? A better way of doing something. We use technical knowledge to improve the way we do any task. As our technical efficiency increases, our productivity improves. A habit is no different. Seen from a distance, a habit is a way for you to accomplish long term tasks without having to expend too much willpower and mental resources. It makes long, difficult journeys easier. In other words, it makes you more efficient, because when the journey is easier, you are less likely to quit.
Hence the double-edged sword of habits. If you are aware of the sunk costs fallacy — the idea that we have the tendency to double down on activities (even if they are bad for us) once we have invested a sufficient amount of time or resources — then you can see how habits can help you commit to something you never wanted to commit to in the first place.
There are many podcasts and books that deal with the mastery of habits.
I am not saying that such a focus is unwarranted or useless. It is important to build the right habits rather than the wrong habits, so that over time, you can benefit from the interest made from this initial investment. But it is difficult to know where to draw the line between unquestionable good habits and their evil cousin, habits that blind you.
Ultimately, the only remedy is to schedule a periodic check-in, where one looks at their lives and re-evaluates the direction their ship is moving in. If it is established that a change in direction is necessary, then we must be willing to scrap away what we have taken so much time to perfect, and build again. It is only by doing that do we preserve our sense of agency while at the same time benefiting from the extraordinary technical power of automatic behavior.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.