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The Place Of Habit In The Economy Of Our Lives

Habit is one of nature's methods of economizing time and effort, while
at the same time securing greater skill and efficiency. This is easily
seen when it is remembered that habit tends towards automatic action;
that is, towards action governed by the lower nerve centers and taking
care of itself, so to speak, without the interference of consciousness.
Everyone has observed how much easier in the performance and more
skillful in its execution is the act, be it playing a piano, painting a
picture, or driving a nail, when the movements involved have ceased to
be consciously directed and become automatic.

HABIT INCREASES SKILL AND EFFICIENCY.--Practically all increase in
skill, whether physical or mental, depends on our ability to form
habits. Habit holds fast to the skill already attained while practice or
intelligence makes ready for the next step in advance. Could we not form
habits we should improve but little in our way of doing things, no
matter how many times we did them over. We should now be obliged to go
through the same bungling process of dressing ourselves as when we
first learned it as children. Our writing would proceed as awkwardly in
the high school as the primary, our eating as adults would be as messy
and wide of the mark as when we were infants, and we should miss in a
thousand ways the motor skill that now seems so easy and natural. All
highly skilled occupations, and those demanding great manual dexterity,
likewise depend on our habit-forming power for the accurate and
automatic movements required.

So with mental skill. A great portion of the fundamentals of our
education must be made automatic--must become matters of habit. We set
out to learn the symbols of speech. We hear words and see them on the
printed page; associated with these words are meanings, or ideas. Habit
binds the word and the idea together, so that to think of the one is to
call up the other--and language is learned. We must learn numbers, so we
practice the combinations, and with 4x6, or 3x8 we associate 24. Habit
secures this association in our minds, and lo! we soon know our
tables. And so on throughout the whole range of our learning. We learn
certain symbols, or facts, or processes, and habit takes hold and
renders these automatic so that we can use them freely, easily, and with
skill, leaving our thought free for matters that cannot be made
automatic. One of our greatest dangers is that we shall not make
sufficiently automatic, enough of the necessary foundation material of
education. Failing in this, we shall at best be but blunderers
intellectually, handicapped because we failed to make proper use of
habit in our development.

For, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, there is a limit to our
mental energy and also to the number of objects to which we are able to
attend. It is only when attention has been freed from the many things
that can always be thought or done in the same way, that the mind can
devote itself to the real problems that require judgment, imagination or
reasoning. The writer whose spelling and punctuation do not take care of
themselves will hardly make a success of writing. The mathematician
whose number combinations, processes and formulae are not automatic in
his mind can never hope to make progress in mathematical thinking. The
speaker who, while speaking, has to think of his gestures, his voice or
his enunciation will never sway audiences by his logic or his eloquence.

HABIT SAVES EFFORT AND FATIGUE.--We do most easily and with least
fatigue that which we are accustomed to do. It is the new act or the
strange task that tires us. The horse that is used to the farm wearies
if put on the road, while the roadster tires easily when hitched to the
plow. The experienced penman works all day at his desk without undue
fatigue, while the man more accustomed to the pick and the shovel than
to the pen, is exhausted by a half hour's writing at a letter. Those who
follow a sedentary and inactive occupation do not tire by much sitting,
while children or others used to freedom and action may find it a
wearisome task merely to remain still for an hour or two.

Not only would the skill and speed demanded by modern industry be
impossible without the aid of habit, but without its help none could
stand the fatigue and strain. The new workman placed at a high-speed
machine is ready to fall from weariness at the end of his first day. But
little by little he learns to omit the unnecessary movements, the
necessary movements become easier and more automatic through habit, and
he finds the work easier. We may conclude, then, that not only do
consciously directed movements show less skill than the same movements
made automatic by habit, but they also require more effort and produce
greater fatigue.

HABIT ECONOMIZES MORAL EFFORT.--To have to decide each time the question
comes up whether we will attend to this lecture or sermon or lesson;
whether we will persevere and go through this piece of disagreeable work
which we have begun; whether we will go to the trouble of being
courteous and kind to this or that poor or unlovely or dirty
fellow-mortal; whether we will take this road because it looks easy, or
that one because we know it to be the one we ought to take; whether we
will be strictly fair and honest when we might just as well be the
opposite; whether we will resist the temptation which dares us; whether
we will do this duty, hard though it is, which confronts us--to have to
decide each of these questions every time it presents itself is to put
too large a proportion of our thought and energy on things which should
take care of themselves. For all these things should early become so
nearly habitual that they can be settled with the very minimum of
expenditure of energy when they arise.

THE HABIT OF ATTENTION.--It is a noble thing to be able to attend by
sheer force of will when the interest lags, or some more attractive
thing appears, but far better is it so to have formed the habit of
attention that we naturally fall into that attitude when this is the
desirable thing. To understand what I mean, you only have to look over a
class or an audience and note the different ways which people have of
finally settling down to listening. Some with an attitude which says,
Now here I am, ready to listen to you if you will interest me,
otherwise not. Others with a manner which says, I did not really come
here expecting to listen, and you will have a large task if you
interest me; I never listen unless I am compelled to, and the
responsibility rests on you. Others plainly say, I really mean to
listen, but I have hard work to control my thoughts, and if I wander I
shall not blame you altogether; it is just my way. And still others
say, When I am expected to listen, I always listen whether there is
anything much to listen to or not. I have formed that habit, and so have
no quarrel with myself about it. You can depend on me to be attentive,
for I cannot afford to weaken my habit of attention whether you do well
or not. Every speaker will clasp these last listeners to his heart and
feed them on the choicest thoughts of his soul; they are the ones to
whom he speaks and to whom his address will appeal.

the face of difficulties and hardships and carry through the
disagreeable thing in spite of the protests of our natures against the
sacrifice which it requires, is a creditable thing; but it is more
creditable to have so formed the habit of perseverance that the
disagreeable duty shall be done without a struggle, or protest, or
question. Horace Mann testifies of himself that whatever success he was
able to attain was made possible through the early habit which he formed
of never stopping to inquire whether he liked to do a thing which
needed doing, but of doing everything equally well and without question,
both the pleasant and the unpleasant.

The youth who can fight out a moral battle and win against the
allurements of some attractive temptation is worthy the highest honor
and praise; but so long as he has to fight the same battle over and over
again, he is on dangerous ground morally. For good morals must finally
become habits, so ingrained in us that the right decision comes largely
without effort and without struggle. Otherwise the strain is too great,
and defeat will occasionally come; and defeat means weakness and at last
disaster, after the spirit has tired of the constant conflict. And so on
in a hundred lines. Good habits are more to be coveted than individual
victories in special cases, much as these are to be desired. For good
habits mean victories all along the line.

HABIT THE FOUNDATION OF PERSONALITY.--The biologist tells us that it is
the constant and not the occasional in the environment that
impresses itself on an organism. So also it is the habitual in our
lives that builds itself into our character and personality. In a very
real sense we are what we are in the habit of doing and thinking.

Without habit, personality could not exist; for we could never do a
thing twice alike, and hence would be a new person each succeeding
moment. The acts which give us our own peculiar individuality are our
habitual acts--the little things that do themselves moment by moment
without care or attention, and are the truest and best expression of our
real selves. Probably no one of us could be very sure which arm he puts
into the sleeve, or which foot he puts into the shoe, first; and yet
each of us certainly formed the habit long ago of doing these things in
a certain way. We might not be able to describe just how we hold knife
and fork and spoon, and yet each has his own characteristic and habitual
way of handling them. We sit down and get up in some characteristic way,
and the very poise of our heads and attitudes of our bodies are the
result of habit. We get sleepy and wake up, become hungry and thirsty at
certain hours, through force of habit. We form the habit of liking a
certain chair, or nook, or corner, or path, or desk, and then seek this
to the exclusion of all others. We habitually use a particular pitch of
voice and type of enunciation in speaking, and this becomes one of our
characteristic marks; or we form the habit of using barbarisms or
solecisms of language in youth, and these cling to us and become an
inseparable part of us later in life.

On the mental side the case is no different. Our thinking is as
characteristic as our physical acts. We may form the habit of thinking
things out logically, or of jumping to conclusions; of thinking
critically and independently, or of taking things unquestioningly on the
authority of others. We may form the habit of carefully reading good,
sensible books, or of skimming sentimental and trashy ones; of choosing
elevating, ennobling companions, or the opposite; of being a good
conversationalist and doing our part in a social group, or of being a
drag on the conversation, and needing to be entertained. We may form
the habit of observing the things about us and enjoying the beautiful in
our environment, or of failing to observe or to enjoy. We may form the
habit of obeying the voice of conscience or of weakly yielding to
temptation without a struggle; of taking a reverent attitude of prayer
in our devotions, or of merely saying our prayers.

HABIT SAVES WORRY AND REBELLION.--Habit has been called the balance
wheel of society. This is because men readily become habituated to the
hard, the disagreeable, or the inevitable, and cease to battle against
it. A lot that at first seems unendurable after a time causes less
revolt. A sorrow that seems too poignant to be borne in the course of
time loses some of its sharpness. Oppression or injustice that arouses
the fiercest resentment and hate may finally come to be accepted with
resignation. Habit helps us learn that what cannot be cured must be

Next: The Tyranny Of Habit

Previous: The Nature Of Habit

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