The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.
This quote comes from an essay by Jonathan Safran Foer in the New York Times titled: How Not to Be Alone (published 8 June 2013). The essay is about technology eroding human connection, but this one sentence is what I want to focus on.
The nature of habits is that they are shortcuts around the hard work of thinking consciously about every little thing we do, how we act, the expressions we use, how we speak, even how we think (see Unhelpful Thinking Styles). In many ways we are, to other people at least, the sum of our habits.
Initially, to form a habit we shape our behaviour, consciously choosing certain actions and thoughts over others. With sufficient repetition a habit forms, a preference is established of resorting to the habit rather than the hard work of something that is new or different to us. Each habit we have causes slight changes to our brain, reinforcing the neurological pathways which cause the habit to occur and reducing the threshold to trigger the habit so it runs efficiently given the appropriate circumstances.
The sum of hundreds of habits we all perform every single day wears a groove in the matrix of society. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of people each running in their habitual groove and social norms arise, trends occur such as the generally bad attitudes of Dunedin drivers, the laid-back nature of most Polynesians, the brashness of Americans.
Because our habits wear a groove through our lives, they are very difficult to change. Obstructions can be ground down by the persistence of following a habitual track which requires less energy than altering course. This is most obvious in older people who have deeply ingrained habits that they are not even aware of. But it is not impossible to change habits, it does take great persistence and determination to make any changes stick
My typical approach is to go through each day without giving much thought to my habits. But if I consider the effect my habits could be having on the person I will be in ten years time, I need to decide what aspects of me now I want to nurture and what needs to be deleted. Then I need to look at which habits cause the attribute I don’t like and how I could change my habits to support better attributes. (There is a good bit of unfinished thinking here!)