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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

illful 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