Habits are Leverage

by Mark Thayer on April 9, 2018

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

The self-improvement industry loves this quote. Part of its appeal is that it is continuously and mistakenly attributed to Aristotle. It was written by Will Durant, an historian and philosopher through the mid-twentieth century, in his book ” The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers.” The phrase was a summary of Mr. Durant’s interpretation of Aristotle as found in the Nichomachean Ethics. It is a great example of how the more provocative the thought, the more likely it is to gravitate to more famous origins.

But origin does not necessarily detract from truth. The challenge is to go beyond the soundbite and evaluate, for ourselves, the applicable truth of the contained wisdom.

The first sentence is a definition: something is this. The definition asserts that the quality of our state of being is determined by our actions in the real world. Fair enough.

Doing something once may produce an excellent result, but is not indicative of human excellence — a one-time event may be indistinguishable from luck. Excellence requires repetition and practice over an extended period of time. The time frame is measured in years, often in decades.

It is more accurate to say that we become what we repeatedly practice. There are many things we do repeatedly that do no make us excellent, but excellence requires learning, which requires repetition — like it or not, we learn not by modern educational theories, but by repetition. For all our theory, there is no avoiding this.

The idea of habit — (almost) unconscious, automatic behavior — contributes to practice, repetition, and the development of excellence by eliminating the need (and the required emotional energy) for motivation. There is no need to motivate ourselves; we automatically do. The more we do, the better we become. Habit becomes leverage; it magnifies our energies.

There are subtleties that require our attention. We can repeatedly do things that do not make us excellent. There are behaviors that are large-scale and obviously negative, like alcoholism or criminal behavior. There are less-obvious repetitive behaviors that can be equally damaging, such as Internet and social media addiction, eating poorly or too much, procrastination or wasting time. Evil ends can be pursued just as readily through the force of habit as virtuous ones. This requires that habits, like any other behavior, be evaluated in the context of a moral code.

The behavior encapsulated in a habit may be automatic and somewhat mindless, but excellence requires that the choice of habits to be developed and the formation of their constituent behaviors be made consciously. Think first, then act. We should take this further. Excellence requires continual evaluation of all habits, and the willingness and ability to change those that produce negative results or lead us away from excellence or virtue.

Repetition is a necessary but not sufficient condition for excellence. A habit is repeated behavior, which is (or should be) practice. Effective practice requires sufficient awareness to ensure that how we practice, and what we practice, is actually effective — leading to improvement. Obvious here in the abstract, but subject yourself to an audit of your habits. How much of the component behaviors are effective; consciously chosen based on confident knowledge that repeating such behavior will lead to excellence? How many of your habits are the result of falling into a repeated pattern of behavior, without conscious thought?

Habits are leverage, and can cut both ways.

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