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From Vol. 1, Issue 12, December 2019

Learning to like habits (or at least accept them)


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Growing up, I was never a fan of habits. I tried to organize my life so that I wouldn’t be beholden to the daily movement of the clock. I rebelled against habits as basic as waking up early enough to get to school on time. 

The positive side of habits 

But now that I’ve adopted a Stoic life philosophy, my mindset has gradually shifted. I’ve come to see the positive side of habits—I realize that some can actually help us live healthier lives, physically and mentally. 

Ancient Stoics looked favorably on habits meant to cultivate the good. According to Epictetus, 

Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it. 

Discourses, 2:18 

For me, what’s most difficult about a habit or routine is how limiting it feels, how freedom-draining. I love autonomy. The more weekly meetings and bookings that get built into my schedule, the more stressed I feel. 

Choose your habits

The way to counter this feeling is straightforward: as much as possible, CHOOSE your habits, and remain conscious of this choice. Assent to it and accept it, rather than constantly experiencing an inner sense of rebellion and frustration that motivates lateness, forgetfulness, lack of preparation, etc. 

For instance, if I want to keep my job, I need to attend regular group meetings. If I just didn’t show up, that would make it clear that I didn’t really agree to doing the job. In the Stoic sense, my “discipline of assent” would be deactivated, and I should consider moving on. In my case, I’ve assented, I understand the obligation, and I attend the meetings and contribute as productively as I can. 

Even small habits can make a difference 

It’s the inner rebellion over losing freedom that triggers hatred towards habits and routines of all kinds, not just about school and work. But even small habits can make a difference, and I’ve seen it happen with less-consequential examples. Several recent books, such as Atomic Habits, have reinforced this theme: forming tiny conscious habits can change lives. 

We all follow habits, even if we don’t want to name them as such 

And let’s face it: We all follow habits, even if we don’t want to name them as such because they are steeped in chaos. In high school, for instance, my habit was to wake up at the latest possible minute necessary to arrive at class “on time” (in fact, a gross underestimate). Naturally that created problems. I needed a new habit. 

I can now see more clearly. Habits can actually be opportunities. Where I work, for instance, there’s an onsite gym. If I can get in the habit of going there, even just for 30 minutes, I’ll be more fit and will improve my well-being. It’s a habit I’m working to form. 

Each new habit is a chance to find—and choose for ourselves—new ways to create a “good flow of life,” worthy of Zeno. 

Meredith Kunz is a Silicon Valley-based writer. @thestoicwoman on Twitter