Tag Archives: quotations

Are You Unnecessarily Severe with Yourself and Your Habits?

“All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.

— Samuel Johnson, as quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

I often think about this remark by Samuel Johnson.

Because I’ve been so focused on habits over the past few years, during the writing of Better Than Before, people often talk to me about the habits they want to change.

And although I have so many strategies and ideas that I’ve identified to help people master their habits, to my surprise, I frequently find myself making the case against changing a habit.

I’ve noticed that people often say they want to change a habit because “I really should ___” or “this person in my life tells me I have to ___.”

And I always say, “Well, maybe you would be better off if you changed the habit — but maybe not. Do you care if you change that habit?” And often, they don’t really care.

For instance, a friend said, “I really love coffee, but I know I should stop drinking it.”

“Why?” I pressed. “Does it keep you up at night? Does it make your stomach hurt?”

“No, it doesn’t affect me.”

I couldn’t resist launching into a defense of coffee. “You need some treats, and as treats go, coffee is great. Even if you buy very expensive coffee, it’s not that expensive, in absolute terms. It boosts your energy and focus. If you don’t add anything crazy, it doesn’t have any sugar, carbs, fat, or calories, but it does have antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and even fiber, weird as that sounds. Caffeine is fine if you’re drinking it in the human range. Plus, there’s pleasant ritual connected with it—you can go out for coffee with a friend.”

“But I should at least cut back.”

“But why?” I pressed. “Enjoy it! A habit isn’t bad unless it causes some kind of problem.”

Along the same lines, when I was in L.A. a few days ago, I did an event where I was interviewed by brilliant journalist Lisa Napoli. She asked how she could change her habit of dumping her clothes in the bathtub.

I asked, “Does it bother you to have those clothes in the bathtub?”

She paused, and said, “Well, actually, no.”

It’s not a conventional thing to do, true, but why  try to squash a habit if it’s not a problem?

Most of us have some habits that we’d like to change that would actually make us happier, healthier, or more productive. So I argue that we should do first things first, and turn our energy toward the habits that really matter.

How about you? Have you ever thought, “I should really change this habit,” and then realized, “Nah, I don’t really care.”

I have the nervous habit of twisting my hair, and for a long time, I told myself that I should stop — but several years ago I decided, “No, I’m not going to worry about it. I’m fine with my hair-twisting.” (Though I do try not to do it when it might bug someone else — in particular, when I’m around my mother. Fortunately, it doesn’t bother my husband.)

All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle. We should be as easy on ourselves as we can be. Agree, disagree?

 

Agree, Disagree? Habits Tend To Deaden Experience.

“Hence every thing, that is new, is most affecting, and gives us either more pleasure or pain, than what, strictly speaking, naturally belongs to it. When it often returns upon us, the novelty wears off; the passions subside; the hurry of the spirits is over; and we survey the objects with greater tranquility.”

— David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2.3.5

This is a striking thing about habits — they tend to deaden. For better and for worse.

If there’s something that’s unpleasant, that makes us uneasy or angry, we tend to have a lesser reaction as the behavior becomes a habit. When I started blogging, I felt very anxious every time I posted, because I didn’t quite know what to do. But as I got in the habit of writing every day, the anxiety wore off.

If there’s something pleasant, we also tend to have a lesser reaction as the behavior becomes a habit. That early-morning coffee was a treat when it was a new thing, but once it became a habit, I hardly noticed it, except to be frantic when I didn’t get my coffee.

I try to offset this effect, with some of my pleasant habits, by trying consciously to revel in why it gives me pleasure.

How about you? Have you noticed that habits weaken your emotional response to an activity?

Do You Find It Hard To Imagine That an Important Place Continues, After You Leave?

“I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.”

— John Knowles, A Separate Peace

One of my children’s literature reading groups is reading A Separate Peace, and I certainly know the feeling described here — that it’s hard to imagine these institutions, that we experience so intensely, continuing on their way once we’re gone.

I get this feeling a lot when I go back to Yale Law School. Many things are the same, many things are different…and it’s hard to imagine that it’s all happening, while I’m far away.

For You, Does Abstaining Give Mastery Over a Pleasure–Or Not?

“It is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without even being worsted. ”

— Aristippus, quoted in A History of Ancient Philosophy

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Samuel Johnson: “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.”

This issue comes up a lot with the Strategy of Abstaining, when Abstainers and Moderators debate their approach to resisting a strong temptation.

Moderators argue, “Why abstain, why be so absolute, why give up a pleasure altogether?” But for Abstainers — and I say this as an Abstainer myself — abstaining is the way to gain mastery over pleasures. It’s easier to abstain, and it’s a relief.  “Abstinence from a pleasure” not for the sake of abstaining, but because it’s easier.

Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator? Take this Quiz.

In Better Than Before, I have a whole chapter dedicated to the Strategy of Abstaining — but as always, I must emphasize, this is not a strategy that works for everyone! It doesn’t work for Moderators!

And most of us are a mix of both.

How about you? How do you best master your pleasures?

Feel Hurried Because You Have No Time, or Because You’re Wasting Your Life?

“The feeling of being hurried is not usually the result of living a full life and having no time. It is on the contrary born of a vague fear that we are wasting our life. When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else.”

–Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

Agree, disagree? This quotation reminds me of one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastation. I have to remind myself of this often.