If you were looking for a thinker who took habits seriously, you could do worse than taking a look at William James. This 19th century father of American psychology went so far as to say "We are mere bundles of habits."
If we want to understand what drives human behavior, James argued we would do well to ascribe most actions to the force of habit: "Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night." The habits we form early shape our destiny, reasoned James. "We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves."
William James was an original and influential thinker. He was interested in how we might put the role of habit to work to improve our lives and better our condition. He saw in habit no meager force - but rather one of the strongest means to rework our lives. "Habit is second nature," wrote James, "or rather, ten times nature."
Habits and Education
As an educator himself, as well as a philosopher and psychologist, James saw many ways the force of habit could be put to work in education. "It is very important that teachers should realize the importance of habit." "The teacher's prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life. Education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists."
James saw in youth several opportunities for the force of habit to improve the conduct of life. He believed the minds of the young were more "plastic" and easier to mold: "Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state." Unlike education today, James wasn't interested in filling these plastic minds with facts that could be regurgitated on standardized tests. Instead, his concern was with shaping the conduct of a good life. "We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can."
While William James certainly accorded a special power to youth in forming habits, he was unequivocal that it was never too late to get started. "New habits" assured James, "can be launched." He even suggested some tips:
1. Start strong: "In the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible."
2. Build momentum: "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."
3. Make friends with the hard stuff: "Do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty."
4. No exceptions, at least at first: "Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life."
Breaking old habits (or forming new ones) is not easily done. Better to start right when you are young - but if you don't have that possibility, James' tips suggest we'd do well to be scrupulous about how we start our new habitual efforts. And since it is not easy, quit looking for it to get easier. "Every good that is worth possessing" counseled William James, "must be paid for in strokes of daily effort."