On Habits Good & Bad


Our neighbor up on the lake was old and growing infirm, and he had let my dad know that he needed some yard work done. My dad sent me over. There’s nothing remarkable in this story except that I recall the first thing the old man said to me, “Are you feeling ambitious?”

I’m not sure why that question stuck, but it did. I answered the old man in the affirmative, which wasn’t so close to the truth. I did the work, but it wasn’t a bang-up job. Maybe not even the bare minimum. I feel bad about it now, but not so much then.

This was a regularly occurring tendency with me, laziness, and so it’s a good thing I grew up under my father who wouldn’t stand for it (I tried not to make his job easy, though). And then from home into the military which also wasn’t inclined to dismiss half-assed efforts.

Laziness in the form of non-ambition with me was a habit, a bad habit (and certainly not the only one I ever had), which was turned around only by diligent instruction. I say “turned around”, but it’s always there ready to creep back. But I keep it at bay with another habit, a good one, which is the Just Get It Done theory of work, a theory which explains itself in its name (it is surprisingly effective).

Habits are not something you do all the time, but only most or all of the time in certain circumstances. A man might have the good habit of checking his rope for frays, but only when he climbs a mountain. Or he might have the bad habit of boasting, but only when he attends his class reunions. This implies you can avoid bad habits in two ways: avoid the circumstance, or eliminate the habit altogether. Eschewing circumstance is easy enough to understand. If you’re worried about getting drunk, don’t go to the bar.

Changing the habit is different. The thing to notice about habits is that they are like political arguments. They are the premises which are always assumed, the givens, the unquestioned basis for the start of any argument. They are the conditions which are just there and which aren’t questioned because they’re not really thought of. They are the launching points. Habits are mental reflexes.

This is why breaking a bad habit is hard labor. You have to stop what you were about to do each and every time, and then go over all the assumptions which convinced you what you were about to do was right. And since the number of assumptions behind much of what we do are many, the work required to do this thinking can be immense and painful. You have the goal immediately and front of you, and the map is clear, yet you must stop and wait. It’s easier to proceed.

This is not news. Aristotle said “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit” and habits are require work: “the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

Since men do change at least sometimes for the better, Aristotle’s first judgment that learning good habits while young makes a very great difference is closer to the mark.

Quitting a bad habit “cold turkey” isn’t the only way to change, as our good saint Aquinas says: “repeated acts cause a habit to grow. If, however, the act falls short of the intensity of the habit, such an act does not dispose to an increase of that habit, but rather to a lessening thereof.” But bad habits are only finally “destroyed altogether by long cessation from act”. Skipping the dessert once does not eliminate a sweet tooth. The even better news is that some “habits are infused by God into man”. He can infuse “into man even those habits which can be caused by a natural power.” These are infusions worth asking for.


  1. Yawrate

    Aristotle said, “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

    It’s amazing how much wisdom is found in that one sentence.

  2. Gary

    states of character arise out of like activities
    A body in motion tends to stay in motion.
    Raise up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it.

  3. Ken

    One of the most effective ways of changing any habit is to begin to substitute another habit. Trying to quit smoking — instead of going “cold turkey” pop in a stick of gum when the craving hits. Trying to lose some weight by cutting back on snacks — instead of going “cold turkey” pop in a stick of gum. That’s a kind of substitution that’s worked for many. I’m not saying a stick of gum is the solution to all, by the way, but it does seem to help in some cases … and the benefits of gum-chewing might be a neglected research area in need of further study. Or maybe not.

    Habits have been linked rather conclusively to neuroplasticity — how the brain literally rewires itself based on a given stimulation, an effect that has been repeated objectively measured (e.g. the famous London cabby study such as reported at: http://www.wired.com/2011/12/london-taxi-driver-memory/ ; its also been observed in stroke recoveries, etc.).

    Any habit one has invariably includes some neural wiring tailored to just that activity. The saying goes in neuroplasticity, “what [neurons] fire together, wire together.” This is partly where so-called “muscle memory” comes from.

    So, if you’ve got a habit you want to break, you also need to rewire your brain. Literally. Stopping cold turkey will work, eventually. But in the meantime those habituated well-used neural connections will, thru disuse, crave stimulation and this is where one experiences the cravings coming from. Eventually, disuse will lead those connections to atrophy, and the cravings subside. Substituting some other habit, especially one that uses some of those existing connections (e.g. gum flavor & chewing as a substitute for smoking & eating), helps stimulate the existing connections causing the cravings, causing the cravings to somewhat subside, while also stimulating the formation of new connections — a new habit. That happens faster than letting things atrophy on their own via disuse.

    So, if you’ve got a habit you want to “break” — replacing it with something else is the most expedient way to go. Not saying that makes it easy, but a habit substitution approach does make it easier.

    Also, physical exercise correlates with faster brain development, though nobody has good insight as to why. So if you’re trying to break a habit, and try substitution and are still having a hard time, add exercise (if not already).

  4. “Raise up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it.” Unless he fails at it, in which case, he’ll toss out and/or blame religion, society or whatever he can find for his failure.

    Muscle memory works this way too. It’s best to learn things the “right” way first so you don’t have to retrain the muscles. Retraining takes longer than learning many activities, as it does with habits.

  5. Gary

    When I sit on a Boy Scout’s Eagle Scout Board of Review I often read them this quote from Vince Lombardi and then ask them how they might incorporate it into their schooling, college and life.
    “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”

  6. Ken

    In developing a skill (related to but distinctly different from a “habit”) how one goes about it matters tremendously – Deliberate Practice. To my knowledge there’s only one good study on it, though others have adopted this as well. Here’s a link to a decent summary, with links to the research that’s, so far, stood the test of testing & time:


    And a link to the papers that figured out what many figured out on their own & kept secret for competitive advantage:



  7. Gary: Yes, that seems to be true. People who fail and then blame others and give up on doing anything lack the will to actually succeed. I find they usually lower the bar to near ground level to try and compensate for their lack of success by claiming success at that level.

    Ken: Interesting links. I really don’t think anyone kept these ideas secret. People just didn’t bother to research the ideas. The ideas have been out there for years, in various forms ranging from “self-help books” to actual research.

  8. John B()

    David Crowder once wrote a book:

    Praise Habit: Finding God in Sunsets and Sushi

    A large proportion of the book relates “habits”
    to the “Habits” worn by Roman Catholic Nuns.
    (Replacing their old “habits” with those of God’s)

    Unfortunately I gave the book to my brother and didn’t finish it myself.

  9. DMA

    Lying can become a bad habit. I have known folks that it seemed would rather lie than tell the truth even if it wouldn’t make any difference to the audience. It is that experience and the truth about habits discussed in this article that will keep from considering a vote for Mrs. Clinton

  10. But let us also consider this from the Aristotle citation you have offered:

    For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another.

    “Eschewing circumstance,” as you phrase it, strikes me as no way at all to eradicate a bad habit, and habits are not matters of nature but, rather, of behavior. This is, after all, why alcoholics refer to themselves as “recovering alcoholics”: that is, they can never, in their ideology, be cured of the malady and therefore they merely employ techniques and circumstantial care in order to avoid getting heavily into the drink again.

    Of course too, as a good old Orthodox boy from way back, while I may find some value in Thomas Aquinas, I cannot quite commend all of his insights into the human psyche. I am reminded then also of something from my own upbringing: ambition is a pejorative. In this essay it is phrased as an opposite to laziness, but I myself cannot rightly imagine that. Laziness, in fact, is an ambition unto itself: the direction of oneself unto one’s own lethargic sorrow or the comforts inherent to one’s complacency. That is, if one is not soliciting the favor of others (ambition), then one is soliciting the favor of one’s own self-pity (another form of ambition, known in some Greek circles as ??????.

    The “habits infused by God into man” strike me as the conscience one should wish has not been seared by this life. Are they, though, truly habits? Surely this world does not habituate us to them. They are perhaps, rather, simply a voice we hear reminding us that the habits inherent to living in this crummy world are trying constantly to pull us down and away from them.

    In any event, nice post. I’m glad my friend David Dickens recommended it to me.

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