“Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits.”
― Samuel Beckett
Lately I’ve been recognizing how deeply engrained some of my personality traits are. One of them is that I am a creature of habit, almost to a fault. This isn’t a unique characteristic, but it definitely varies from person to person. I find myself stepping over the same paths daily:
I have a waterside park I love to read at a few times a week. If I go to a restaurant and find a good meal, I never order anything else. If I end up at a fancy restaurant, I almost always get a cheeseburger. I’ve followed basically the same weightlifting regimen for four years, and it’s served me well. I usually walk the same way to the subway, and if I’m with a friend and they show me an alternative route, I am often shocked that such a route exists. The power of habit. Being jogged out of it can be mindblowing at times.
I enjoy a sense of routine. Contrary to what others may believe, I think that repeating the same tasks over and over again doesn’t just provide a numbing sensation or a sense of repetitive comfort but also allows an opportunity for us to find the mundane interesting. If you live a life of habit, you can change your perspective on your routine rather than the routine itself, and it renews the enjoyment of a once-boring rote task. Habit is only a problem if it becomes mindless and wasteful.
That said, the world is ridiculously vast. We spend our lives treading carefully along one careful path, often one we’ve knowingly carved ourselves, and forget that we’re walking through a ridiculously large and labyrinthine place. Every decision can seem like the forfeiture of all the options left open by other decisions, but we can only pick one action in the moment.
This can be stressful, but it’s also sort-of liberating. Habit isn’t this big comfortable thing floating around that we can hop on at will. It’s the culmination of things we do in the present. Every time you put your gym shorts on, call a friend, eat a salad or drink a glass of wine, you’re making a choice not to do something else, like put on leather chaps, call a hooker, eat a steak or drink a bottle of whiskey. All options are always technically open, but we discriminate to preserve our health, sanity and general well-being. What we do now, and then choose to do again later, becomes who we are.
Don’t eschew habits or try to suddenly drop all of your bad ones to revolutionize your life. That never works. Instead, cultivate a sense of mindfulness. Recognize over time how your activities come to form a sense of comfort and repetition, or how they drag you down and make you feel bad. It’s pretty simple, just a process of recognition and self-reflection. And once you begin to mindfully reflect, you’ll be more primed to take little actions to improve yourself.