Habits can set people free, in some ways. By automating desired behavior patterns, we can make it easier to accomplish goals without conscious daily effort. Forming habits is a goal of many behavior change protocols, and something I personally try to incorporate into my self-improvement attempts. But recently I came across a line in a novel that made me wonder if it’s really that straightforward.
The novel was The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. It’s about a man, Jean Perdu, who has spent 20 years mourning the end of a love affair and in the process has reduced his world to a small number of people and routines. After he is spurred to confront his pain, Perdu goes on an adventure and makes new friends (a lame synopsis designed not to spoil anything for those of you who choose to read the book). Part of Perdu’s metamorphosis is reflection on the nature of habit and what it can do to the scope of a person’s world. George writes:
Habit is a vain and treacherous goddess. She lets nothing disrupt her rule. She smothers one desire after another: The desire to travel, the desire for a better job or a new love. She stops us from living as we would like, because habit prevents us from asking ourselves whether we continue to enjoy doing what we do.
The emphasis above is mine, not George’s, because that is the line that particularly made an impression on me. There’s some truth there. The nature of a habit is to overcome the effortful processing that prompts us to take action or not. When we’re talking about an exercise habit or a medication-taking habit, then chances are that whether we continue to “enjoy” this activity is a moot point. Antihypertensives are not about the enjoyment. But what if the habit is something more meaningful: A tedious job, a stale friendship, a missed opportunity to do something amazing?
My counter to George would be that these more meaningful activities can’t really be boiled down neatly to habits. To go back to the science, a habit is the result of a cue –> routine –> reward cycle, which is far too simple to describe the complex set of behaviors that constitute a professional job or a friendship. Certainly some habits play a role in those areas, but overall they are started and maintained by more deliberate processes.
But a more useful takeaway for real life is this: Take time on a regular basis to assess your feelings and examine your priorities. Do you feel good about the major areas of your life right now (health, family, friendship, work, etc.)? If not, what isn’t working for you and what could you try differently? Regular temperature-taking can help avoid some of the perils of what I’ll call routine, not habit. The new year is a great time to give this a try, perhaps in lieu of a traditional resolution.