Do You Agree with These 7 Quotations about Habits?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Do you agree with these 7 quotations about habits?

Whenever I read a book, I love to copy my favorite lines and passages into my giant trove of quotations. (If you love quotations too, sign up for my “Moment of Happiness,” a free daily quote.)

When doing my research for Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I naturally began to collect quotations about habits. Working those passages into the book was one of my favorite things to do.

Certain quotations, however, had a particularly strong influence over my thinking about habits.

1. “Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.” — John Gardner

I love this quotation, and almost made it the epigraph of the entire book. Gardner is a Rebel, and made that observation from his Rebel perspective, but it’s just as true for everyone. Nothing stays in Vegas; everything counts.

2. “The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.” — Publilius Syrus

I made this quotation the epigraph of the book, instead. With habits, as with happiness, it all boils down to self-knowledge. When we truly know ourselves, we can master ourselves to create the lives that suit us best.

3. “A stumble may prevent a fall.” — English Proverb

With habits, it’s very important to think about safeguards, and to plan to fail. The idea that a little failure might actually be constructive  — that a stumble may prevent a fall — is very helpful idea to help to re-frame lapses.

4. “Researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did. . . . people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.”  — Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

This quotation lacks that aphoristic quality of the others, but it really sparked my thinking about habits, and why they’re so valuable. Auto-pilot! Habits help us escape the drain of making decisions and exercising willpower.

5. “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The issue of reward is extremely complicated in the field of habits. Rewards are very, very tricky to apply. But the one reward that never fails is the satisfaction of the good habits itself.

6. “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” — Iris Murdoch

We must have treats! More and more, I’m seeing that the idea of deprivation is an enormous challenge to good habits. When we start to feel deprived, we enter into the “I need it, I deserve it, I’ve earned it” cycle. Getting lots of healthy treats help ward that off. When we give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves.

7. “If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again…when I see how very few of them there are, I begin to understand what huge effect these few patterns have on my life, on my capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for me, I can live well. If they are bad for me, I can’t.” — Christopher Alexander

This is a reminder of the central role of habits in our daily existence, and also a reminder of the very purpose of mastering habits: to live well.  It may take time and effort to change our habits, but in the end, they make our lives better.

Do you agree or disagree with these statements?

Do you have any habit-related quotes you love? Or any quotation at all, really. I do love quotations.

To order Better Than Before, go here.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    The quotes all ring true! The one that is the most challenging and thought-provoking is the Gardner statement of paying when you break or follow a law. It’s true that each choice brings with it a consequence that will take from you certain things—a freedom for example—and in equal measure, give something new or different back. So, to break a rule of ‘no candy on Wednesday’ might bring sensory pleasure that day, it might carry with it guilt. And to follow that rule might bring up frustration or resentment in the moment a Snickers craving arises, but following the rule might give back a feeling of pride for sticking with it.

  • Abby

    Great list! My favorite is #5, in Leo Babauta’s words, ‘The habit is the reward.’ It’s succinct and highly motivating to me, so much so that i have printed, framed, and displayed this quote where i can see it first thing in the morning!

  • Molly

    For me, #1 is the most profound, I’m happy to say I fit the bill for #4 (I always say I am congenitally moderate and I don’t have strong urges to overeat or overdrink, and a few other things), and I’ve heard #6 (probably from you Gretchen), but I was surprised to see the source. I wouldn’t have thought of Murdoch on that quote. Seems more like something Ben Franklin would have said.

    • Molly

      #1 resonated for me, in particular, I think, because I am seeing this in action as I raise my son. The current issue is friends v. after school activities and school work. It seems that when I am less strict and let him play more with friends and stay on-the-go, he enjoys life more, but we pay with discipline issues and schoolwork issues (not engaging in reading or other intellectual and imaginative activities beyond homework). But when I crack down and stay disciplined about after school activities, friends, and focus more on school and home, he finds life a little more boring b/c he misses his friends and his friends go in other directions so aren’t as easily accessible for play (this is neighbors). It would be nice to find a balance, but so far that doesn’t work either.

  • Ticki

    One more great quote: “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” Warren Buffett

  • Jeanne

    Love quote 1, and can see why it is number 1. We all reap what we sow. Every choice we make is a cause that will create its corresponding effect. This is quite simply the primary law of life – which both complicates and simplifies things. It complicates because we resist it and don’t want it to be true. We want to do A and have the consequences we would receive by doing B. Example: I want to keep drinking, but not lose my job or family or get arrested for DUI. But if you want addiction-free consequences, you must stop the addiction. A will get you A, not B. It simplifies because once we get it that we are the authors of our experience, we can think and act in ways that will get us the effect we want, or at least know who to blame if we don’t.

  • khomet

    I heard this recently on the radio or TV and it really stuck with me:
    “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” – Heard from a Navy Seal
    It fits the topic well. I’m looking for ways to re-train myself. Your book is on the list!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific. I’m so happy to hear that.

    • Gillian

      Great quote! This applies not only to habits but to moral behaviour. If we consciously think about our moral code and decide how we would act under certain circumstances, we are much more likely to do the right thing when that circumstance arises because we don’t have to make a decision in the moment when we are caught off guard. This is the advantage abstainers have in resisting temptation. It is so important to make our rules when we have time to think about them and not in the moment – whether they be habits or other circumstances.

      One small example – a couple of weeks ago I bought 4 bottles of wine but when I got home, I discovered I had been charged for only 3. I went in the next week to pay for the 4th bottle. There was no decision-making involved because I have a hard and fast rule that if I am under-charged or receive too much change, I pay it back. The clerk was confused because she had never encountered this before – only the opposite when people are overcharged. All the people in the lineup behind me were completely surprised that I had done this – which says a lot to me about the general moral standard in this society. I said something to the effect that I have made my rules and I stick to them. People need to start examining their values – I hope I prompted the people behind me to do a bit of that.

  • ikraft

    It is interesting to me that so far people have singled out #1 and #5 as their favorites. Those are the two among the list I cannot stand. #1 seems extremely limited to me because it defines “the law” and “you pay” as essential elements of our being. #5 is silly because “a thing” can be any thing at all. What about a well done murder?
    #7 is the one that resonates the most for me.

  • David Leverett

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE these quotes! Inspirational! I think there’s a lot of wisdom in stumbling to prevent a fall, that quote really made me think. Thanks!

  • I love #2 – In life, so many of us run on auto-pilot – our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are automatic. It takes mastery to be able to respond rather than react. Having empire over one’s self takes lots and lots and lots of practice! Yet it is so worthwhile when you get there – you find there is more room for grace, compassion and empathy. For others and for yourself.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I guess I learned #5 as ‘virtue is its own reward’ and when I was younger, did not like that. Now that I am older and wiser, I have come to accept that ‘virtue’ and a feeling of integrity are VERY often the one and only reward we are aware of reaping from our good habits and consciously chosen good behavior.

    I also live by ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ (like your growing pile of coins theory. And what we do in the monastery is “we fall and we get up and we fall and we get up. . . ” I am constantly having to start that journey of a thousand miles all over again. If I didn’t get up from the falls and keep trying, I’d be lost.

  • CB

    The Gardner quote is interesting because it seems to be left deliberately ambiguous, as befits a Rebel tendency. I find that funny (strong Rebel tendency here) because I interpreted it as breaking the law pays out (as in a liability), following the law pays in (as in a benefit). I guess all Rebels rebel in their own way.

  • Liz

    #7 is the quote that hits home for me. I face the challenge of my own patterns on a regular basis and know I’m not alone in that. Having worked with people who live in poverty, I understand why some can’t “rise above it,” break their patterns and find a way out to a better life. Yet, many of them are happy at some level. Quote #7 seems to sum up the human experience and speaks to the need for self awareness.

  • Jennifer

    Yes!…to all of them! I especially like #2! About a month ago, I decided to tackle my issues with keeping the house clean. Before, I was all or nothing and the cycle of it looking really great or so bad I didn’t want anyone to see my house had become too exhausting. I had read all of your books and another about Tidying from a Japanese woman but I can’t remember the title! I started for finding a place for every single thing I own and a system. I wanted to do this and have serenity before my 3rd shoulder surgery on Sept. 29th. It’s been scorching hot in San Diego so I achieved 80% of my goals and I am beyond satisfied! And, I plan to finish the minute I am well enough. And, when I started my 1st goal I kept ever day, was that my living room had to look the same as it had in the morning and then at the close of the day, no matter what! I even threw stuff into my dining room which still isn’t organized and I was okay with that…baby steps, baby steps, baby steps! And, now I know I will remain organized and clean and it feel fantastic, AND it has become automatic! When I’m finished using something, it goes back to where it LIVES! It is possible to change and I am proof! As an aside, I found an APP called EVERNOTE and it is ny new favorite thing! I plan to organize the heck out of all my recipes and anything else that moves me and have a digital copy but it will take time! Use it, you’ll love it! When you download it on your computer, you can clip articles straight off Internet and copy into files on EVERNOTE!

  • Ali

    I remember one of the arguments with papa in which it is
    part of generation differences or youth greenhorn that is walk a miles is safer
    than to jump a river. I lived 12 years in the streets some as street fighter,
    wonderer or homeless and I found out that his saying is very true, also I
    believe in an English proverb ” try once, twice, third, fourth, fifth, sixth
    in the seventh you will make it’