In 1890, author William James published the book “The Principles of Psychology” and in it a chapter titled “Habit.”
The book starts by describing creatures in nature and how they are a bundle of habits. Their daily behavior is cultivated by habits that was implanted at birth. He goes on to make other observations of nature and the plasticity of physical things. How things become immovable over time due to the shape that they are molded into. He talks of physics within the natural world.
He builds up to this simple premise: things grow into the model in which it has been exercised.
It is the philosophy of habit and it has great and unseen practical applications to human life:
Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. – William James
In the book, James goes to great lengths to prove that habits are an essential part of human existence. He talks about riderless cavalry horses lining up for battle at the sound of the bugle. How prisoners seek re-admittance after being granted freedom. How tigers emerging from their cages only to reenter after discovering it cannot exist without it. Trapped by its daily habits, the tiger is powerless to roam free.
James spends time bridging the gap between you as a reader and his theories. He wants to ensure that you have fully bought into the power of habit before divulging the maxims for the daily application of habits.
But when espouses these truths, one must seek to understand, because, at its root, it is how one can rise from zero and become a hero. A hero in a world of accumulated habits.
ZERO TO HERO: THE ACCUMULATION OF DAILY HABITS
1. Principle: When seeking to acquire a new habit, you must launch yourself with as strong and decided initiative as possible.
Take the plunge and mobilize every resource you can muster in order to succeed at obtaining the new habit, whatever it may be. Create momentum that will enable success because every day that you succeed, every second that you resist that temptation, the chances of succeeding long term increase exponentially.
2. Principle: Never suffer an exception until the new habit is firmly rooted in your life.
This simply means do not allow yourself a “cheat” day until you know for sure that it won’t completely derail your progress. This principle is subjective and may or may not work as prescribed. For dieters, planning a cheat meal after a weight loss goal has been met is perfectly feasible. But for smokers, it is probably never safe to allow even the slightest of submission. Strong-willed people can go years without smoking only to falter at the smallest of whims.
James provides support for this maxim by stating the importance of succeeding early on, “Failure at first is apt to dampen the energy of all future attempts, whereas past experience of success nerves one to future vigor.”
The continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right. It’s about training your body and mind to always be successful; building a solid base of positive outcomes that you can continually fall back on.
One must first learn, unmoved, looking neither to the right nor left, to walk firmly on the straight and narrow path, before one can begin to make one’s self over again.
Unmoved, looking neither right nor left. Success often requires little else but this is perhaps the hardest of all habits to master. The mediocre people of the world will call this practice obsession.
3. Principle: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain.
Action, above all else. A person’s character is completely fashioned by will; a tendency to act only becomes effective when we do it over and over again and when the brain becomes accustomed to its use. With good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.
When there is a chance to further promote the habit of success, it must be taken. Doing otherwise only promotes failure, which in turn promotes mediocrity.
There is no more contemptible type of human character that than of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.
4. Principle: Keep the faculty of effort in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.
Be systematic and heroic in the accomplishment of the small, unnecessary tasks. Do something every day for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need arises, you are equipped with the necessary tools, unnerved and untrained, to stand the test.
Again, habits work both ways. If we consistently fail to achieve what we set out to do, then failure becomes easier. We become attuned to failing. Its important to note that this habit of failure does not come from the failure of heroic feats. It comes from failing to do the little, everyday things that are often considered too mundane to be noteworthy.
Perhaps one of my favorite quotes of all time was simply a subscript of this maxim.
So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed life chaff in the blast.
The accumulation of habits will build. The momentum of the daily practice will build.
A Hero will emerge… A master of the mundane. Committed to doing the little things, knowing momentum will build and excellence will form.
PS- The book is on the public domain for free. However, this timeless masterpiece is worth a spot on your mantle of fine books. Purchase a copy here.
The maxims that James provides are battle-tested strategies that have since been repeated many times over. Still, the “how-to” is not thoroughly covered. My post on how I forged an unbreakable mindset is here.