Habits

Have you ever been in a car with a brand new driver? He or she needs to decide when, and even consciously remember how, to use a turn signal, how to hit the gas or brakes and whether or not to watch that car on the left.  Actions that for an experienced driver are effortless are a complex minuet for a new driver. It’s exhausting – and a little terrifying – just to be a passenger.

Much that we do, we do without conscious thought. Even the larger patterns of our days are mostly based on habit rather than moment-to-moment decision-making.  You regularly have alcohol with dinner, or you don’t. Same with engaging in daily exercise or flossing your teeth. You generally read, watch TV or fiddle with a communications or game device before sleeping, according to the same pattern. In a sense, even your manners, your job and your marriage are meta-habits; you are on a path, and you follow it until you consciously, and with considerable effort, turn off of it.

A small example: over the years I have switched back and forth, going for long periods as a dessert-eating guy and for equally long periods as a no-desserts guy, but I am almost never on the fence; the point is not that habits can’t be changed – they can, with conscious effort – but that once changed they become different habits.

This pattern-following frees our conscious minds to consider larger issues, or none at all. We stumble through routines while our minds wander. Sometimes we have great thoughts while in the shower.

Habits make our daily lives more readily navigable; we couldn’t function at a very high level if we constantly re-evaluated every little decision. But once in a while each of us should step back and look critically at our own habits, small and large. Bigger consequences may flow from the patterns to which we never give much thought than from the turning points that we know at the time are Big Decisions. After all, when other people look at us, they mostly see our habits. Indeed, in a sense, to others we are our habits.

 

M.H. Johnston

 

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