Habits are at first cobwebs, at last cables, goes the old saying but what is a habit, and where does it come from? It is a pattern of behavior that is frequently repeated until it becomes automatic and is a natural part of how a human mind develops. Our characters are composed of a collection of habits that can be good or bad, so we seek to establish good ones and remove the bad.
Good habits include punctuality, honesty, reliability and financial prudence. We are encouraged to develop these from childhood, but it is human to fall into error, and it is necessary to be constantly vigilant in maintaining standards. Our friends, relatives and enemies are often very helpful here in pointing out our shortcomings! Good habits are developed from discipline and practice.
For example if you are studying, and that should be a lifelong habit for all, it is important to establish a good method. Developing a structured approach, with regular study periods, revisions, rest breaks and a system of rewards when you have completed goals, works well. In other words, you should acquire good study habits. As Shakespeare put it: “… Use doth breed a habit in a man.”
This saying reminds us that habits start off frail and grow stronger with the passing of time ensnaring us before we realize it. Good habits we tend to take for granted, and it is the bad ones that worry us. Most advice on habits tends to be about how to be free of the harmful kind. Entire industries spring up around a bad habit with gurus offering all sorts of advice, pills and techniques.
In days gone by, people tended to see bad habits as temptations from devils or demons. Today we would probably think of habits as neural networks in the brain that strengthen with repeated use, and to break them we must overlay them with positive behavior — substituting good for bad. Smoking is regarded as a major bad habit and one method of control is to substitute another sucking habit such as a sweet; but this can lead to the obesity that comes from bad eating habits.
Prevention is often better than cure and not starting a habit is the best method of all for avoiding its consequences. “I wish I had never started it,” is the common cry of the smoker, drinker or drug addict. People waste large amounts of their hard earned money on a bad habit as it grows and develops, and then even more trying to be free of its tentacles. The young should resolve not to follow the “unreflecting herd” but to listen to the warnings of those who have been there, done that, and lived to regret it. There is no gain in being wise after the event.
The best method of overcoming unwanted habits is the exercise of self-control so that the habit gets its energy cut off and withers naturally. Then the cables that bind us in misery can be snapped.