Habit Forming

Is the great Greek wrong on this one… 

I stumbled across  an interesting article in Time – (it quoted an academic from my place of work) which suggests he might be:

So what are habits, really? According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a psychologist focusing on habit research at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behaviour with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are simply how the brain learns to do things without deliberation. These impulses can be put to good use, but only certain behaviors can become habits.

Building a habit is relatively simple — just harness the impulse. For new habits to take hold, provide a clear trigger, make the behavior easy to do, and ensure it occurs frequently. For example, by completely removing unhealthy food from my home and eating the same thing every morning, my diet became a healthy habit. I extracted the decision making process out of what I eat at home.

However, if the behavior requires a high degree of intentionality, effort, or deliberation, it is not a habit. Although proponents of habits tout them as miracle cures for doing things we’d rather not do, I’m sorry to say that’s snake oil. All sorts of tasks aren’t habits and never will be. By definition, doing things that are effortful aren’t habits.

Unfortunately, this means behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. For example, although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an “impulse” to write, I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from the research to my head and then to the screen. Similarly, lifting weights isn’t a habit because getting stronger requires working harder.

So if these type of behaviors aren’t habits, what are they? They’re routines. A routine is a series of behaviors regularly practiced. Routines don’t care if you feel an urge or not, they just need to get done. When I finally realized I would never succeed at making going to the gym a habit, I began looking for how to establish a routine instead.

This makes sense, when you think about it. I’ve read elsewhere that as much of 40% of the time we are doing things which have become habitual and have no conscious deliberation – we are on Autopilot.

This suggests three things – all of which I’m trying… Make boring but useful things a habit (taking my vitamin D for example); make things which take some effort but are good for me into a routine (write a blog every Saturday); and more counterintuitively – make sure things which are supposed to be enjoyable, don’t become a habit. 

Why? Because once you stop thinking about them, you’re no longer consciously enjoying them. Not having a drink on Monday or Tuesday has become a habit (good). So sometimes sharing a bottle of prosecco with my other half on a Wednesday, has become a treat (need to be careful it doesn’t become a habit though…)

It’s worth reflecting on what you want to do without thinking, what you can’t do without thinking and what you enjoy doing – and need to think about to consciously enjoy. 

Habits aren’t conscious. They may help to make us excellent; but our best and most enjoyable work and experiences require conscious effort. 

I’m sure Aristotle would buy that.


I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.

The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?

Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.

When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.

I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.

So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?

Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.

As Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.

Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.

In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.

Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.

Olympic Ideals

It’s easy to knock sport. Huff and puff, crass commercialism even corruption. But sport can also be pure human expression, ballet, drama and gladiatorial combat – sometimes all rolled into one. The Greeks knew this.

This morning I had a speech to do, at the British Museum, to school pupils and teachers from 29 countries all around the world. From Mongolia, the disputed border regions of northern India, Gaza as well as all over the UK – from Northern Ireland to the Shetland Isles.

They are following 29 very different athletes en route to London 2012. The UK schools are twinned with the international schools that 100m sprint star Usain Bolt went to as a kid, as well as less well know prospective Olympians like India’s best female boxer.

Looking for something to say, I came across Pierre de Coubertins’s Olympic values, first set out in 1894. I’m a great believer in ‘founding moments’. If you want to see the best of what human beings are capable of, the founding moments of great institutions are a good place to start.

And if professional sport – especially football – is eating itself, there is something transcendent and timeless about the Olympic values which is worth hanging onto. As I said to the 150+ pupils and teachers from all around the world, if we can’t all run like the wind or win a Gold Medal, we can all aspire to the Olympic values:

Respect – fair play; knowing your own limits; and taking care of yourself and the environment.

Excellence – taking part and giving your best in your sport and your life.

and Friendship – how, through sport especially, to understand each other despite any differences.

They feel as fresh and relevant today as they were in 1894.