March 24, 2020 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Book Excerpts Stoicism

How To Make Or Break Habits

Chuck Chakrapani

When we quickly judge a person or a situation, we do so out of habit, not out of careful consideration. In fact, most of our judgments about people and situations are based on habits. If our habits are faulty so will our judgments be. When our judgments are faulty they lead to unhappiness.

Making quick decisions about things is unavoidable, given the fast pace of modern life. We cannot be indecisive for long about many things. Habits make our decisions easy and more effective, as long as they lead to right judgments. The habits that most people form — such as anger habit and worry habit — are ineffective and lead to unhappiness. So, we need to know how to get rid of negative habits and form positive ones.

What follows below are some tips on how to form positive habits as taught by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. He shows how to let go of negative habits that make us unhappy and form positive habits that will lead us to the good life.

Remember every time you feed a habit, it gets stronger

Every habit is formed, and every capacity strengthened, by our doing things associated with it. Walking makes you walk better, running makes you run better. Want to be a reader? Read. Want to be a writer? Write. Go for a month without reading, you will see the effect. Lie down for ten days and then try to get up and walk, you’ll see how weak your legs have become. Want to be a Stoic? Read about Stoicism and practice. If you want to do something, make it a habit. If you don’t want to do something, do something else in its place.

Your behavior is not an isolated thing. It is a link in a habit chain

When you are angry, it is not an isolated bad thing. You have encouraged a habit, adding fuel to the fire. When you yield to anger, don’t think of it as a temporary setback. You have fed and strengthened your weakness. You can expect habits to get stronger by actions associated with them. This is how current habits become stronger and newer habits are formed.

You can weaken a habit by not repeating it

We form and strengthen habits by feeding behaviors associated with them. When we keep feeding anger, for example, we become ill-tempered. If you don’t want to be ill-tempered, simply stop feeding your anger. When you get angry, don’t be carried away by it. Don’t keep justifying your anger and tell yourself why you have the right to be angry. You have the “right” to do many self-destructive things. That doesn’t mean you should do them. Try to calm down. Remember every single time you feed a habit, you are nourishing it.

Don’t do things that are associated with negative emotions.

Avoid behaviors that feed a negative habit from the beginning. Suppose someone says something that provokes anger in you. Recognize right away that your instant anger is a habit. If you carefully observe, you will see there are people who don’t get angry in the same situation because they don’t have the anger habit. Don’t keep postponing and say to yourself that you will start forming better habits tomorrow, next month, or next year. If you keep postponing, you will reach a stage where you will become too weak to fight them and you will start making even more excuses.

Loosen the grip of emotions by pausing before reacting

We constantly receive impressions (stimuli) from the world around us and react to them out of habit. Your friend says something that you like, and you are happy. Your boss says something that you don’t like, and you are unhappy. Don’t be carried away by emotions generated by impressions. Your judgment could be wrong: the person you thought was arrogant could just be shy; your boss who failed to return your greeting may be trying to solve a major problem with the company. So, when an impression creates a negative emotion, take a few minutes to examine its true nature. Just pause for a few seconds. If you don’t have to react right away, don’t. Wait until you come down before reacting. Have second thoughts. Don’t give your negative thoughts the upper hand.

Realize that undesirable habits lead to mental weakness

Here is how you become mentally weak. When you become greedy, if you use reason to alert you to the danger of being greedy, you will come back to being normal. But if you don’t do anything, the mind will not return to its balanced state but will be excited by another impression, yielding to greed even more quickly. If you keep yielding to greed, the mind will become insensitive to greed. Eventually, greed will become entrenched. This is true of all negative passions and they lead to mental weakness.

When you are weakening a habit, do not make exceptions

If you had a fever and recovered, you are not in the same state as before, unless you are fully cured. This is true of the unhealthy passions of the mind as well. They leave certain scars and traces behind. Unless you make sure that you are totally cured, the spots that are not fully cured become vulnerable if you have a relapse. It is the same with mental habits. When you are trying to weaken a habit, don’t make exceptions.

If you don’t want a bad habit, do not feed it

If you don’t want to be bad-tempered, don’t feed the habit. Don’t do anything that will strengthen the anger habit. Calm down. Don’t be angry today. Or the following day. Count the number of days you can go without getting angry. “I used to be angry every day. Then every other day. Then every third,” and so on. If you manage to spend thirty days without getting angry, you are doing very well. Your habit was weakened at first and then destroyed. If you continue like this for three or four months without your passion causing you distress as it did before, you are in excellent health.

Don’t let your mind paint a rosy picture

Your mind will often paint a rosy picture of negative habits by imagining pleasant consequences. Imagine how you will teach him a lesson by being angry! Imagine how much she will respect you if you brag about your accomplishments! Imagine how much advantage you can gain by cheating! This is how our mind tricks us into doing things that are harmful to us. Habits like anger and greed may feel good when we are in the grip of them, but they can have serious negative consequences. Don’t be too quick to believe the pleasant consequences portrayed by your mind. Think of the pleasant consequences of not giving in to anger or greed.

Develop a contrary habit

One great way to weaken a negative habit is to form a contrary habit. A contrary habit is one that is incompatible with the current habit. For example, compassion is contrary to anger. So, when you are angry, see if you can be compassionate instead of being angry. Humor is contrary to annoyance. So, when you are annoyed, see if you can find humor in the situation. When you do this your sense of humor habit is strengthened while your annoyance habit weakens.

[The source of almost all the above suggestions for weakening negative habits and forming positive habits is Epictetus, in particular, Book 2 of his Discourses. See also my book The Stoic ChoicesChapter 18Epictetus rightly points out that, because habits play such a big role in the way we interpret the world, we should pay particular attention to them.]