Manvotional: Habit

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 12, 2010 · 25 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

From Ethics for Young People
By Charles Carroll Everett, 1861

In speaking of the influence of companions, I said that a man tends to imitate the persons by whom he is surrounded; and we saw that while this tendency may work harm, it may also work much good: and that in fact the development of civilization has been largely dependent upon this tendency.

Most of all, a man tends to imitate himself. The fact that he has done a thing once, in a certain way, makes it easier for him to do it again in the same way. The oftener this is repeated, the more fixed does the habit become. At last he cannot do the thing in a different way without great effort. Finally it may become almost impossible for him to do it in a different way.

It is interesting to see the force of habit in little things. In this way one can most easily get an idea of its real power.

Notice its power in such a little matter as putting on one’s clothes, one’s coat, for instance. Almost every one in doing this always puts the same arm first into the sleeve. With some it is the right arm and with some it is the left. Probably very few, if they were asked, could tell which arm they put in first; but as soon as they undertake to do the thing, the arm which commonly goes first makes its movement; and it is only by a strong act of will that it can be made to give way to the other…

Observe, farther, how skill is acquired in any handiwork, so that at last the work goes on better when we are not thinking of it, than when we attend to what we are doing. The fingers of the skillful pianist take care of themselves, and the old ladies can read as they knit. So strong does habit, as the result of training, become, that it is said to be impossible for a good swimmer to drown himself, unless he be tied hand and foot. By habit that has become an instinct, the body practises the lesson that it has learned; and the man who has thrown himself into the water swims in spite of himself.

Notice now the good results of this tendency of habits to become fixed. In some cases, like those to which I have referred, the life of the person is, in a sense, doubled. As was just said, the old ladies knit and read or talk at the same time. So in very many things, the body that has been trained does the work while the mind is left free to busy itself as it will.

Another great advantage that springs from the fixity of habits is found in the fact that, by means of this, our lives may make real progress. What we have gained is secured to us.

Think how hard it would be if we had continually to start again from the beginning. How the soldier shrinks when he first goes into a battle; how gladly he would flee. It is said that green soldiers are sometimes placed alternately with those that have been seasoned in many a fight, that the stability of the veterans may keep the raw recruits in their place. The old soldiers have got so in the habit of marching and standing as they are told, that it has become with them a matter of course.

Consider, too, how a man who is in the habit of handling money lets it pass through his hands with hardly a thought of the possibility of keeping any of it. In such cases habit may sometimes be a better safeguard than principle that has not hardened into habit. Principle untrained may sometimes give way to a temptation which habit would withstand.

This fact applies to everything that we do, and to every relation of our lives. We can make a habit of honesty, of industry, of kindliness, of attention, of courtesy, and of whatever we will. Indeed, Aristotle, one of the wisest men of antiquity, defined virtue as a habit of rightdoing.

Consider what power we have thus over our lives. We shape them to a large extent as we choose, and then, through habit, they tend to harden into the shape that we have given them, as the plaster hardens into the shape which the artist has chosen.

The matter has, very obviously, another side. Bad habits form as readily as good ones. I am not sure that they do not form more readily than good ones, because virtues require more effort than faults. We drift into faults; but to make the best life we have to take control of it and guide it.

Think, now, how many bad habits are formed,— habits of inattention, of carelessness, fretfulness, of evil speaking, of selfishness, and others that are even worse.

Indeed, a bad habit is the last thing that most of us are afraid of. We think that we are acting always from our own choice, that it is no matter what we do now, because another time, whenever we wish, we can do differently. But all the while a certain habit is forming and hardening, until at last we find ourselves almost helpless. Thus, even our tastes, our amusements, our selection of books, the tendency even of our most secret thoughts, are becoming fixed, and we are becoming permanently the persons we meant to be only for the moment.

If the artist takes such pains with the plaster that he is forming, so that it may harden into a shape of beauty, what care should we take of the habits which are to effect so strongly and permanently our bodies, our minds, and our hearts.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brandon December 12, 2010 at 1:37 am

“Thus, even our tastes, our amusements, our selection of books, the tendency even of our most secret thoughts, are becoming fixed, and we are becoming permanently the persons we meant to be only for the moment.”

That’s deep! Man, I wish someone had told me this about 10 years ago!

2 Andrew December 12, 2010 at 9:21 am

I was glad to get the email alert for this when I was in the middle of a not-so-focused homework session

Thanks, great read

3 Barry M. December 12, 2010 at 10:52 am


4 Evan December 12, 2010 at 11:55 am

I enjoy these posts because it goes to show that people were thinking things 150 years ago that many of us assume is new age wisdom. Over the past 3 or 4 years I have ingrained many bad habits in myself (MIndlessly drinking too much coffee, pointless internet surfing, etc.) that it seems almost overwhelming to try to overcome them all. I know though that I will need to overcome them if I want to live the life I am capable of living. Thanks for the post.

5 JR December 12, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Excellent article, as usual.

This year, I made a decision to work on two main things, establishing a good routine that could work on days off, as well as days I was busy.

This took some time to accomplish. However, I now find myself doing these things, out of habit, and find that my days are more enjoyable, and I feel more accomplished when I complete my morning routine. I also have a routine that I follow before going to sleep that allows me rest comfortably knowing I will be able to complete my routine easily the next morning, not worrying about time constraints, even on the busiest of days.

The other was eliminating negative people or habits from my life. Once this was accomplished, I found myself feeling down less, which leads to more happiness, and being more sure of myself.

6 Gregory J. Estevez December 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Great article, I had always enjoyed discussing such matters and this article is one more piece of evidence that enforces the saying ” be careful who you hang out with” and in other words. Be aware of what you choose and what is chosen to be around you.
Again, great article Bret.

7 Patrick Pugh December 12, 2010 at 10:27 pm

This is especially enlightening as we enter the new year. Behavioral modification is difficult to achieve if one’s strength of character is too weak to defy the influence of his own habits, or the habits of his peers. I’m going to keep my habits in mind when formulating my resolution(s) this year. Great article, thank you!

8 Levi December 12, 2010 at 11:24 pm

This is something I think about often. I fight a constant battle with my bad habits, and often I lose. I’ve learned that it’s not only determination that changes behavior, but a strong method and flexibility. Sometimes, I catch myself acting just like my father and I have to completely remove myself from the situation in order to “reset” myself. Great article.

9 Sam December 13, 2010 at 7:23 am

“we are becoming permanently the persons we meant to be only for the moment.” – wow! I’ve been putting a lot of extra time into work this month and slacking on my socialization. This made me think.

10 Ashley December 13, 2010 at 8:24 am

I just read this and the post on “A Generation of Men Raised by Women” back to back. I was struck by similar imagery:

In this post: “It is said that green soldiers are sometimes placed alternately with those that have been seasoned in many a fight, that the stability of the veterans may keep the raw recruits in their place.”

In “A Generation of Men Raised by Women,” Brett talks about the historical role and importance of men working side-by-side with their son(s): training them in a family craft, but also instilling certain manly virtues and values.

Letting both of these posts sink in, I’m struck by the importance we place on what is communicated through subtext: that is, what is communicated when we are actually attending to some other task or item of discussion. The soldiers are attending to war, but when a veteran stands beside a new recruit, the subtext is calm and courage. The father and son are focused on a craft or task, but the subtext is the value of hard work, persistence, discipline, etc…

This is especially poignant when I consider how literal-minded so many men seem to be in their social relations. So many men (myself included) understand a spade is a spade, when it really isn’t a spade at all: the spade is what it means, is what others mean it to be. Likewise, many fathers think a task is a task: the car must be fixed, so that it is not broken. These fathers do not see that this task is actually an opportunity to dive to some new depth, to forge some new link in a bond tying together father and son…

11 Rusty December 13, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I was at a lecture given by Col. Mike Mullane (he gave me a free copy of his book, Riding Rockets, where he discusses it at length) where he spoke about something similar worth investigating: normalization of deviance. The idea is that you can never deviate from your principles without permanently damaging yourself, so it should be avoided. He spoke about setting principles as well, but I cannot do it justice. It is a good argument for why you should “do it right, every time, even when you’re tired, even when it doesn’t matter, even when it causes delays, even when it costs a lot, even when it embarrasses you”.

Excellent article. We are our habits it seems. I can see now why my dad emphasized good habits and best practices. Since learning about AoM, I’ve started paying closer attention to him and his habits.

12 Marko December 13, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I liked the notion presented above a lot, especially as @Sam quotes, “we are becoming permanently the persons we meant to be only for the moment.”

This post brought to mind a Zen perspective on mindfulness (which I try, mostly unsuccessfully, to incorporate into my daily routines and habits) – as illustrated by a story below. To put this concept simply: be aware of even the most “insignificant” of daily routines. By concentrating on the *moment* you begin to eliminate yourself – the concurrent ramblings in your head, your thoughts about the impending day, your stress, etc.. In this sense the goal of mindfulness is not the “doubling of yourself” but in fact a complete elimination of ones self. From a practical perspective – not something I want to do all that often, but again, a good habit to try.

After ten years of apprenticeship, Tenno achieved the rank of Zen teacher. One rainy day, he went to visit the famous master Nan-in. When he walked in, the master greeted him with a question, “Did you leave your wooden clogs and umbrella on the porch?” “Yes,” Tenno replied. “Tell me,” the master continued, “did you place your umbrella to the left of your shoes, or to the right?” Tenno did not know the answer, and realized that he had not yet attained full awareness. So he became Nan-in’s apprentice and studied under him for ten more years.

13 JR December 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I would like to add that this book, Ethics for Young People, and others from the “Manvotional” are available as free downloads from Barnes and Noble.

14 Carter December 13, 2010 at 2:40 pm


15 Braden December 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm

C.S. Lewis has a great quote about the power of habits:

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.”

- Mere Christianity

I’m finding that the more I focus on acquiring good habits and getting rid of bad ones, rather than on holding to principles or having a strong willpower, the more I succeed in becoming a better man.

16 Bill December 14, 2010 at 11:42 am

Reminds me of a maxim that my Grandfather and Father both repeated to me almost on a daily basis as I was growing up – “A job worth doing is worth doing right”

17 Steelo December 18, 2010 at 3:41 pm

This is a great post. One of my most pondered topics. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People delves much deeper into the topic and although it capitalizes a “business perspective”, it is more fundamentally about family and individual commitment. I have taken several courses on this subject and plan to weave it into my high school curriculum.
Brett and Kate, I am now forced to join your wonderful website. Alas, i can no longer sit and not be accounted for among such people of character.
Thank you all.

18 Charles Martin December 20, 2010 at 10:38 am

In speaking of trying to identify which arm goes first into a coat, I had an incident happen that drove me to distraction for a few months. I was about to put on a tie for work when I somehow asked myself exactly what steps go into tying the tie. As it so happens, I was so confused by trying to do the act and pay attention at the same time that I could not succeed. Indeed, I could not tie a tie for about 3 months until I was able to just grab a tie and NOT think about how it goes on, but just tie it… and then I was back in business. So strong was that confusion that I have never allowed myself to ask that question again.

19 Core January 2, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Just want to say, what a great read this was.

The bit where it talked about the body recalling things, that you practiced was interesting.

I screwed myself up when I went to think about the # I was punching into the time clock the other day. I was like, I need to remember this number… my fingers knew the pattern, but my brain almost failed me on the #.. I went to think and just.. went blank. Rough situation.

20 Stephen B. January 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Ben Franklin was so convinced that good habits were important that he focused on 12 virtues, one per month. He credits this discipline with making him healthy, wealthy and wise (he was a multimillionaire by the time he was 30) It seems every generation from Adam on has to learn the importance of developing character. The Bible says character starts with a thought that leads to an action and then to a habit. The battle ground of the mind is the one we HAVE to win.
As my pastor likes to say, “Not a sermon, just a thought).

21 John F. November 21, 2012 at 11:21 am

I have just turned 60 and all that you write on this site i have heard years ago… why am i now appreciating each lesson you post?

22 Eric suryan April 30, 2013 at 7:54 am

Good habits come parents and other family members; but we lose them in school and college. Even parents become unwelcome and interfering. This happens in India

23 rick martinez June 23, 2013 at 7:05 am

did someone really write this in 1861?

24 WealthoftheMind July 8, 2013 at 1:39 am

Wonderful post. Highly motivational. Since my birthday will be approaching fairly soon, I’m thinking about making very significant changes in my habits as well as my living. Now is the time since time will never be right anyway..

25 Kevin Hernández October 12, 2013 at 12:09 am

Great article, as usual!

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