We are encouraged at an early age to develop good habits. We are also creatures of habit. So I’ve been thinking about habits lately. Is it actually a good thing to cultivate habits or should we try to break free of them?
Obviously, if we’ve developed good habits, we should continue to engage in that kind of behavior, and certain habits are easily classified as good or bad. Smoking, for example, is a bad habit. I think even smokers would agree to that. Drinking to excess is another. Showing up late for work, neglecting to clean your bathroom, eating a lot of fast food: there are plenty of examples of bad habits.
And plenty of examples of good ones: practicing kindness and honesty, working hard, exercising.
But there are many other habits that aren’t as easily classified. We often tend to watch the same news channel, for example. Is that good or bad? Some would say that if you’re watching only Fox News or CNN, that’s bad, and they’re probably right.
We often tend to go to bed at the same time: most would say that’s a good thing. Getting into a regular routine helps us sleep better, which keeps us healthier both physically and mentally.
Of course, if our habit is to go to bed late and wake up early, that’s not good. If we get to bed by midnight and get up around six, we’re probably getting less than six hours of sleep. After a while, that catches up with us.
Another habit: we tend to check our phones or computers frequently during the day, looking for messages or new information, fearing we’ll be left out if we don’t keep on top of current events.
This can be good, allowing us to respond quickly to emergencies, but it also ties us to our technology in ways that don’t allow us to have a break. We’re always “on,” unable to relax, calm our minds and just be in the moment.
Habits are the body’s way of taking shortcuts. Everyone is lazy; everyone seeks to conserve energy. It’s one of the ways we survived and evolved to be what we are today. Any opportunity to save effort, the body pounces on. Habits result from that programming put into us.
So when habits are good or at least not bad, we ought to continue pursuing them, and when habits are bad, we ought to try to free ourselves of them. For habits that are neither good nor bad, just actions to which we’ve become accustomed, there are benefits to be had from continuing them and benefits we accrue when we break them.
Always taking the same route on our after-dinner walk, for example, allows our brains to become distracted, to think about other matters. It provides the opportunity to focus on challenges at work or at home without having to expend mental energy on where we’re going, to find creative solutions to whatever might be troubling us.
On the other hand, taking a new path allows us to see things we haven’t encountered before, or at least not often. This can encourage creativity just as much as taking our standard route. It can open our eyes to possibilities we’d never before considered.
The solution? A mix of following habit and breaking it, never getting too caught up in one or the other.