Nurturing good habits should be a habit

This article was published in the May’2007 issue of the magazine Educare.

Nurturing good habits

Old habits die hard; good or bad, habits are incurable, so cultivate good habits

In 1991, I had heard a speech from one of India’s topmost management consultants on how the concept of KASH (Knowledge-Application-Skills-Habits) is applicable in management. In management and seminars, the emphasis generally is on application of knowledge and skills but since habits represent ingrained behaviour, in the context of KASH, one should use the expression, last but not the least ‘habits’. Any pattern of thought or action repeated many times results in a habit because of the formation of a brain groove. The brain comprises of around 100 billion cells called neurons. A brain groove is a series of interconnected neurons that carry the thought patterns of a particular habit. When we give our attention to a habit, we activate the brain groove, releasing the thoughts, desires, and actions related to that habit. If we repeat a thought and action enough times, a new habit is formed. Continued repetition strengthens the habit. Inattention and lack of repetition weakens it. Cultivating good habits can be difficult, but it is more cumbersome to maintain or get rid of bad habits.

Some management authors have stated that it takes around 21 days to form a new habit or break an old one but that would depend upon the nature and type of habit. Recently, my yoga teacher while demonstrating how different people hold their tea cups/ glasses, said that if despite repeated action, they are not able to change , the problem is deep rooted. It reminded me of an experience while attending vipasana meditation. It is a ten day full time course where they teach Buddha’s meditation technique. They claim that it is a deep surgical operation of the mind. One of their discourses talks of deep rooted behavioral habits which they say depends on one’s samskars or inherent tendencies. They claim that samskars are of three types — the shortest duration is like a line drawn in water which can vanish instantly. The second is like a line drawn on sand which takes time to disappear and the third is like a line engraved on a rock, which is the deepest and most difficult to remove. They could have even passed on from your previous life. This would explain why despite all attempts, some people are not able to curb their temper or change other such habits. These statements reflect their perennial nature:

Men do more things through habit than through reason.
Habits make or mar one’s fortune.
Habit is second nature.
Man is a slave of habits.
A habit cannot be forced out of the window; it can be coaxed out one step at a time.
Habit knows no cure.
Custom in infancy becomes nature in old age.

Some people even go for past life regression as a part of past life therapy to get to the root of these unconscious tendencies. Though it is not easy to break bad habits, one only has go google for “How to break bad habits” to find various articles on the topic.
Many famous sayings are a reflection of the importance of habits. For instance the saying “Early to bed and early to rise makes one healthy, wealthy and wise” is to emphasise on the importance of getting up early. The problem is that these statements arise out of the experiences of other people. Unlike the Panchtantra stories where the experience is first narrated and the moral is given at the end, here we have the moral in the form of a sentence but no in- depth understanding of it. With advancing age and increasing problems, one begins to appreciate in greater depth the wisdom of those sayings and feel more inclined to follow them. More often than not, learning comes from negative experiences, which is not always easy to pass on to the coming generation experientially or even in words.

In one of my previous write ups on inter personal conflict, I had given a father son example, which is actually more relevant in the context of habits. There’s a narrative of a father, who tried to get his son to wash his hands before eating, without much success. He took his son to his doctor friend, who educated him on what germs were, showed them under a microscope and further showed a video film on what could happen to the body if it got infected with those germs. After being oriented like this, the child started washing his hands on his own without any further conflict with his father on the issue. During my childhood, my father often used to ask me to take precaution against the chill in the mornings and evenings during change of season in October. I did not pay heed to the warning too seriously till at the age of 26 in September when I got a very severe cold which lasted for three and a half weeks. Thereafter, covering myself while going out in the evenings or early mornings in October became a habit. Good habits may not make such problems disappear but their frequency can be reduced. On getting a severe cold recently, when I checked up on the net, I was surprised to find that it had nothing to do directly with cold weather and was spread more in the cold weather by hand to hand contact as people preferred to stay indoors. Strange thing to know at the age of 42 for forming such new habits. Some health habits like not smoking are best formed early. Recently, the health minister, Anbumani Ramdoss took on the powerful tobacco industry lobby for gory picture advertisements on cigarette packets that reflected the dangers of smoking. Those pictures were given to prevent the formation of bad habits.

Sometimes a simple good habit may help profusely throughout life. In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi says, “I kept account of every farthing I spent , and my expenses were carefully calculated. Every little item of expense would be entered and the balance struck every evening before going to bed. That habit has stayed ever since and I know as a result, though I have had to handle public funds amounting to lakhs,, I have succeeded in exercising strict economy in their disbursement, and instead of outstanding debts have a surplus balance in respect of all movements I have led.”

Professor Debashish Chatterjee , in his book, Break free explains how excellence comes from nurturing good habits; especially from thinking and execution of habits. He explains that a habit is muscle plus mind. Giving the simple example of how if one changes one grip of the pen to write anything, one can experience discomfort, he explains that this is going against the conditioning of your muscle and mind. He says that thinking has to be pruned of stray thoughts to make it effective and calls it lean thinking. The same thing has been explained differently in the wonderful book The power of Now. The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Disease happens when things go out of control. Thinking becomes a disease when you believe that you are your mind instead of being a witness of the thought process. This results in compulsive, involuntary, unconscious, repetitive thinking. Instead of you using your mind, the mind uses you. The author says inhabit the body. This takes your attention away from thought. Sensing the body becomes an anchor for staying present in the now. As soon as your habitual state changes from being out of the body and trapped in your mind to being in the body and present in the now, your physical body will feel lighter, clearer, more alive. In short, being a witness of the mind instead of being closely identified with it is good for both the mind and the body and helps in a variety of ways.
This is put succinctly by the most well known enlightened man in history, Gautam Buddha, who says:

The thought manifests as word;
The word manifests as deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.

The issue is to be able to pass on the importance of habits to the next generation at a young age. Catch them young is more relevant than anything else as habits, whether good or bad get ingrained by repetition. Giving a lecture to children hardly helps for which one has to be vigilant for the right opportunity. When my twelve year old son learnt about taxation in social studies class, I gave him a rough idea of what income tax was and how various bills had to be kept in their places as proof or otherwise, one may end up paying more taxes to the Income tax department. That was to inculcate the habit of putting the right thing at the right place. Once Rahul Dravid gave an interview on how grateful he was to their support staff: the cricket manager, cricket analyst, media manager, cricket coach, physiotherapist, physical trainer etc who did the support work so well that the players could focus entirely on their game. I read it out to my son to explain the importance of being focused and organised. Only if he made a habit of being well organised like putting things in proper places, he would be able to focus well on the main function whether in studies or in sports. At least, children listen to such examples better than a lecture but that also depends on the issue. I tried to stress the importance of yoga after Sachin Tendulkar started doing it seriously but that drew a lukewarm response.

Since habits get formed by repetition, the competency cycle is worth a
mention. When one tries to learn something new or doing the same thing in a better way, one has to go through four stages:

Unconscious incompetence — you maybe unconscious of what you are doing wrong.
Conscious incompetence — you are aware of what you are doing wrong and have started unlearning unlearn established, unconscious patterns/habits.
Conscious competence — acquiring new habits in the process of doing things in a better way.
Unconscious competence — new habits become a normal occurrence and one does not have to think or make a conscious attempt for doing.

Though all this maybe relevant from the point of view of learning a new skill or enhancing an old skill, from another perspective, after one has formed a habit and is able to do it unconsciously, one should still do it consciously to live intensely. Spiritual masters stress on the art of living consciously to be fully in the present which according to some psychologists is an “occupational therapy” and very good for stress management. This implies that even if you are able to do something mechanically after it having become an unconscious habit, one should still try to do it with full consciousness. It could be something mundane like driving to learning a specialised sport or vocation. Therefore, in this context, even not making a habit a habit is a habit.


3 Responses

  1. […] Edited from Nurturing Good Habits Should Be a Habit: […]

  2. good goodthis post deserves nothing 😦 hahaha just joking 😛 nice post 😛

  3. Thanks for the reducing stress information. Definitely helpful.

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