Habit by William James - Summary

William James explains in a very concise way how humans form and retain habits and why it is so hard to change habits if we don’t adhere to a set of guidelines which he outlines in his book.

  • Instincts tend to vary from one human to the other.

  • The life of animals is defined by daily habits.

  • Plasticity: is the property of withstanding outside forces without yielding to all of them at once but one is weak enough to yield gradually.

[..] the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed.

  • Likewise, bodily tissue that has been harmed once or more often, is prone to be more fragile than before.

  • Habits like nail biting are nothing else than a reflex discharge.

  • Complex habits are a succession of concatenated discharges where one triggers the next one.

  • Habits can be considered like currents flowing along a path cutting deeper and deeper trenches with every passage.

We find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results.

  • The brain is most amenable to directing influences during early phases.

  • Habit simplifies and sharpens movements as well as diminishes fatigue.

  • When acquiring a new habit, we tend to exaggerate our motions like a river overflowing with too much water because of too much force exerted. But, by gradual repetition, we become preciser in the correct channeling of force. Spillage to other parts hence occurs less often.

  • Opposed to animals, humans must study and acquire a skill. Without habits, this would be a pointless waste of time as the skill would not be retained for posteriority.

[..] habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.

  • The succession of nervous events for complex habits often become interrupted during the acquisition of a new habit like riding a bike. After proficiency has been acquired, only a conscious thought of the first event has to be issued - so called cue. The rest follows naturally without thought.

The simultaneous combination of movements is thus in the first instance conditioned by the facility with which in us, alongside of intellectual processes, processes of inattentive feeling may still go on.

  • Habit is like a fly-wheel which makes everything tick.

  • By the age of 30, character can seldomly be altered.

  • To get rid of a habit, we have to have a strong and decided initiative to make it possible as noted in ‘The Moral Habits’ by Profess Bain.

  • Every circumstance around the habit should be altered in order to facility the alteration of a habit to make the change as easy as possible and a relapse less likely.

  • Never ever allow exceptions to fall back to old patterns which break the new habit.

It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.

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.

  • Emotions help propel us away from old habits and this energy should be used to our advantage.

Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost.

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.

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The mind agrees.