Making a habit of it

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Will Durrant, American historian, paraphrasing Aristotle

On the internet, where dodgy misattributions abound, this quotation is invariably ascribed to Aristotle himself. In fact, it is taken from historian and prolific author Will Durrant’s early 20th century work, The Story of Philosophy. In chapter 2 he examines Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and summarises his interpretation as above.

Despite undoubtedly being a genius, Aristotle was a master of the practical over and above the theoretical, which is perhaps the reason why his ideas have endured so successfully. He was one of the few thinkers of his time to acknowledge that philosophy is a luxury: that certain physiological and indeed psychological needs must be met before one can dedicate one’s time to it. He argued that there was never a simple way to define anything, that even the most fundamental moral definitions can vary with circumstances. He also argued, as Durrant summarised so pithily, that living well comes to a large extent through the repeated automation of good habits, and that being theoretically good was not much use in isolation without action.

This week, I finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a spectacularly popular book I have been in the queue for at my local library for several months. Conscious of the even longer queue that came after me (it is next available in December!) I finished the book within a couple of days. This was not a difficult task. I can see why there has been so much fuss about it and why for some it has been genuinely revelatory. As a reasonably well-organised and self-motivated person, I would not go so far as to say that I found the book life-changing, but I certainly found it helpful and agreed whole-heartedly with his refreshingly pragmatic approach. To take just one example, he makes the point that people who appear to be good at resisting temptation (a characteristic that many of my friends claim I possess) are in fact merely better at avoiding it – ingraining the habit, for example, that you do not buy certain foodstuffs is always more successful than buying them and telling yourself that you will consume them in moderation: the latter is simply too difficult to achieve.

Above all else, Clear’s point is that successful people (and you can define “success” in whatever way you choose) develop good habits while others do not. This might seem obvious, but it is precisely his unerring focus on habits that is so radical. While other self-help manuals exhort people to find their motivation and attempt to inspire us to make dramatic changes in our lives, Clear focuses on advising us to develop better habits incrementally: to take advantage of our brain’s ability to assimilate and automate regular and repeated behaviours. For example, I have said to myself: “I will go to the gym at x time on a Monday and a Thursday every week.” How do I make sure that this happens? Well, Clear advises going when I can, whatever the circumstances. If I miss a session due to illness or emergency, it becomes even more important to ensure that I make it the next time. If I can only go for 10 minutes, I should go for 10 minutes. This is because the habit of going is what’s most important. To quote another oft-used saying, perfectionism is the enemy of progress: if I let my abstract desire to achieve the perfect full work-out every time I go to the gym dominate over the priority of simply going habitually, I put my long-term gains at risk. It is easy to use the fact that on any one particular day I simply don’t have time for the perfect workout as an excuse not to go at all. Instead, I should focus on developing the habit of attending come what may, even if my peformance is sub-optimal: the enduring habit is the path to life-long fitness.

One of the things Clear expresses beautifully is the limited power of motivation, something I have written about less skilfully here. I am a firm believer that motivation is difficult to come by and has limited value when it comes to the reality of the daily grind – for example, the regular gym visits necessary to attain fitness or the repeated vocabulary learning required to sit a Latin exam. Humans need to experience some practical gains before they can achieve any kind of motivation and even then motivation can fail. Clear mentions a discussion he had with a coach who trains successful weight-lifters. The coach attributed the difference between those who make it and those who don’t not to some bottomless pit of inspiration or self-motivation but quite simply to their tolerance for boredom: their capacity to stick with the programme of repeated lifts, day after day, without quitting. Fundamentally, that’s all that makes the difference.

One of my tutees, with less than a fortnight to go before their exam, suddenly interrupted our session to ask me about “the best way to learn vocabulary.” Now, I’m not saying there aren’t ways that are better than others, indeed I have written extensively about it and shared a practical guide to exactly that with him and his family months ago. But I know this particular student very well and he’s the sort that is always looking for a silver bullet. He’s the sort that wants a quick fix. The reality is this: there isn’t one. You. Just. Have. To. Do. It. A few words a day, every day, day in day out, over and again, until you’ve learnt them. This is what he has never been willing to hear and he wasn’t particularly thrilled when I said it again.

On my way to my first ever solo gym visit (yes, I made it!) I was stopped by a guy who was getting out of his car and wanted directions to the station. Rising above the urge to moan about London commuters who use our road as a free car park, I beamed at him and said I was going in that direction and would show him the way. “I’m heading there,” I said, pointing to the glowering gymnasium squatting next to Jewsons. “Although I’m not particularly thrilled about it.” What he said next precisely summed up Clear’s case in Atomic Habits. “I haven’t been to the gym for months,” he admitted. I told him that it was my first time going alone having lost my work-out buddy and that I wasn’t looking forward to it for that reason. “Ah!” he shouted, confidently, as we parted ways. “You just need to find your motivation!

Coming from a man who had literally just admitted that he had failed to attend his own gym for months, I found this fascinating. He was probably looking at me and thinking that with my attitude I would never keep going. I lacked the motivation to be a proper gym-goer. As for himself, I suspect in his own mind he was just having a blip. Okay, a blip that had lasted for several months, but a blip nonetheless. He was motivated to go, he simply hadn’t had the time, recently. Work had been manic. But do you see the problem? I think I do. In all honesty, I do not feel motivated to go to the gym. I don’t want to go. But I’m going. That’s the point. It’s the same thing that got me through my PhD, which I hated every minute of; while others claimed to love their research and yet gradually fell by the wayside and quit, I dragged myself up every day, wrote a few paragraphs, cried a lot, and eventually finished it. The practical grind beats the theoretical, the habit beats the concept. Sometimes, the hamster on the wheel is the ultimate winner.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

Leave a Reply