Want to Break that Bad Habit? Listen to William James.

I’ve finished my teaching commitments for the summer. I’ve just returned from a 10-day visit to family in two different states. My summer has, in my mind, officially started. For many PhD students, especially those studying for qualifying exams or, like me, writing their dissertation, summer often boils down to one glorious thing: the opportunity to work on academic research projects in the absence (or almost absence) of other time-consuming professional obligations.  And while I’m excited about having two full-months to focus exclusively on finishing my dissertation (really, I am), I’ve found it hard to get into this new rhythm of work. Upon returning from my family visits, I thought I’d jump right into wrapping up my last dissertation chapter (a reading of influenza in William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows and Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”). But, I feel as if I’m barely dipping my toes into the water. Sometimes it seems like I’m only surveying the surface of the water, feet firmly planted high on the dry ground of the shore.

As I wrestle with the difficulties of working on my dissertation in the absence of teaching–a bizarre affliction, to be sure–I can’t help but think of last summer’s dissertation work. I wrote extensively about renowned late-nineteenth psychologist William James’ conception of habit–what habits are, how they form, and the ways in which they might be changed (for the better). Since I’m not only trying to tie up the last chapter of my dissertation but also am revising the chapters in which I make use of James’ theories, I’ve been reacquainted with some of the nuances of James’ discussion on habit, particularly as it unfolds in his Psychology: Briefer Course (1892), the abridged version of his sprawling opus, Principles of Psychology (1890).  

Black cat peering behind pink roses
Velma is, as James says, a “mass of habits”

I like what James has to say about the formation–and, importantly reformation–of habit.  I think he’s spot on, in fact, and I found his advice on abandoning long-standing, detrimental habits in favor of adopting more productive, personally-rewarding courses of action to be enormously helpful as I wrote the the second (three chapter) section of my dissertation last summer and fall.  And interestingly, as I composed those chapters, I was struck by the extent to which James’ remarks on habit cropped up in many other behavior-oriented programs, such as Weight Watchers’ diet plan and my local training facility’s approach to fitness and health. Even now as I re-read the work I completed on James’ Psychology: Briefer Course, I am struck by the enduring legacy of his articulation of habit and its transformation–a legacy that may very well be estranged from its originator.  

But back to James’ explanation of habit.  He understands behavioral habits in the same way he does neuromuscular habits, or physiological processes by which one executes certain actions, like brushing one’s teeth, putting on a pair of pants, or walking across the room.  The physical work of neuromuscular habits becomes so formulaic and automatic that it can be completed without “conscious attention”[1].  Similarly, behavioral habits—what James calls “moral habits”— are deeply embedded thought processes, emotions, and mannerisms that manifest consistently and automatically.  Both  neuromuscular and behavioral habits, then, are pretty inflexible—once they emerge, they cannot be adjusted easily. The difficulties in modifying habits, James claims, only increases with age.  The older we are, the more ingrained our behavior becomes.  (And who hasn’t experienced or witnessed this?)

But this is not to say that James views behavioral habits (“habits” from here on) as entirely resistant to change.  In fact,  the habit chapter in Psychology: The Briefer Course focuses intently on how habits might be transformed, should one desire to take on such a project.

James’ method for transforming detrimental habits is a multi-step process, and it begins with cultivating–indeed, purposefully and consciously crafting–the conditions that will maximize success.  To me, James’ language is simply beautiful at times, so I’m going to preserve it here.  He claims that

…[I]n the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, [you] must take care to…accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall re-enforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way…This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might. [2]

Weight Watchers makes a similar recommendation to those who enroll in their program (the details of which I’ll keep secret, as only paying members have access to that information, and so I’m a little worried about copyright infringement).

I wonder, though, if James’ advice is that astounding?  Is he merely articulating a common approach to habit reformation rather than offering revolutionary information?  [The new historicist in me wants to judge James’ work based on prevailing, late-nineteenth century notions of habit.] After all, I think that when we are looking to change habits, we naturally try to construct  the “conditions that encourage the new way.”  Consider the following rituals: cleaning off your desk at work before starting a daunting new project; clearing out the clutter in your home office so as to improve productivity (think: organizing the random computer files clogging your desktop or documents folder); cleaning out your bedroom closet (thoroughly!) as you pledge to be more fastidious about laundry duties (ME!).  Each goal–engaging in a difficult, long-term project (i.e., beyond one’s normal scope of experience) or approaching a typical task differently–is preceded by a practice that wipes the slate clean, thereby creating conditions that help to induce something new in behavior.

Of course, I suppose that indulging in such rituals too often might prevent one from adopting  genuine (lasting, hard-to-break) habits.  The repeated attempt to wipe the slate clean perhaps leads to a new habit, but maybe one that is temporary and easily subsumed by one’s old way of operating.  It seems, then, that creating the conditions that encourage the new way could become an exercise in procrastination.  Hmmm. I think I need to clean my desk now, so I’ll sign off…

[1] James, William. “Psychology: Briefer Course.” William James, Writings 1878-1899.  Ed. Gerald E. Meyers. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1992 (1892). 141. Print.
[2]—. “Psychology: Briefer Course.” William James, Writings 1878-1899.  Ed. Gerald E. Meyers. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1992 (1892).  142. Print.
Tagged with: ,
Posted in Books
2 comments on “Want to Break that Bad Habit? Listen to William James.
  1. Josh Kremer says:

    Hi Amy.
    I stumbled across this article searching for “breaking bad habits” as it is something I am really interested in. So much so that I have created an app just for that: Funl: create good habits, break bad ones, and save toward something you love.

    My CoFounder and I built the app on the assumption that we are all a collection of habits – and building better habits will make you a better person. This is a really great article, and is now bookmarked 🙂

    Check out my app: “Funl” http://www.getfunl.com/

    I hope you find it helpful 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: