Agree, Disagree? Habits Tend To Deaden Experience.

“Hence every thing, that is new, is most affecting, and gives us either more pleasure or pain, than what, strictly speaking, naturally belongs to it. When it often returns upon us, the novelty wears off; the passions subside; the hurry of the spirits is over; and we survey the objects with greater tranquility.”

— David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2.3.5

This is a striking thing about habits — they tend to deaden. For better and for worse.

If there’s something that’s unpleasant, that makes us uneasy or angry, we tend to have a lesser reaction as the behavior becomes a habit. When I started blogging, I felt very anxious every time I posted, because I didn’t quite know what to do. But as I got in the habit of writing every day, the anxiety wore off.

If there’s something pleasant, we also tend to have a lesser reaction as the behavior becomes a habit. That early-morning coffee was a treat when it was a new thing, but once it became a habit, I hardly noticed it, except to be frantic when I didn’t get my coffee.

I try to offset this effect, with some of my pleasant habits, by trying consciously to revel in why it gives me pleasure.

How about you? Have you noticed that habits weaken your emotional response to an activity?

  • Gillian

    The second graphic (the colourful one) is certainly more eye-catching and is a great representation of the concept. It’s only problem is that it doesn’t depict any overlap between the tendencies. The other graphic does imply some overlap but is otherwise not nearly as clear a depiction.

    On the subject of habits being deadening, I think that is largely true. Good habits, practiced every day, lose some of their specialness. I can relate to your morning coffee habit except that mine is in the afternoon. After I retired, I started the habit of having one cup of coffee every day in mid-afternoon. After a while, I changed it to right after lunch so that there was only one disruption/pause in the day instead of two – this resulted in somewhat less lost time. I still enjoy that coffee, although it is perhaps not quite such a treat as it was initially. The problem is that I now can’t get on with my afternoon until I have had that coffee. It’s not a physical need but a psychological one. Unless I don’t have time for it because I have a specific appointment to keep, I must have that coffee and the associated down-time!

    The frustrating thing about habits is that bad habits can be made and good habits broken in an instant. Do the same bad thing twice and it’s a habit; skip the same good thing twice and the habit is broken. Breaking bad habits and making good ones, on the other hand, can take weeks of effort and require constant vigilance to prevent failure. At least, that’s how it is for me.

    • Gillian

      Good grief! A stray apostrophe. It should say “Its only problem”.

  • Habits are such strange things. Hard to make and hard to break. I am a real creature of habit but, I have to admit that sticking to new habits can be a challenge until I am in the right frame of mind to really want to make the change.

    Loved the quiz. I came out as an obliger! I would have loved to have been a rebel 🙂

    • I believe I am also a creature of habit. Good / bad alike. Hoping to let go of the bad….i do feel that the more I am wishing/hoping for that great wonderful exciting romantic encounter to fill me, as in my intimacy of my relationship, with time sameness the feelings lessen. It takes a whole lot more from that am to pm to the actual exp for it to be more. Just the reg ol normal habit kind lessens with emotion each time.

  • Mimi Gregor

    Usually I create habits around things that are essentially boring anyway. For instance, I have a morning routine that I adhere to as soon as I get up. I can do it on auto-pilot, which comes in handy on mornings like today when they have changed the clocks and I’ve lost an hour of sleep. My morning routine is all about getting breakfast prepped, laundry done (if needed), cleaning and restoking the fireplace (in cold weather), doing my exercises and meditations, getting dressed, making breakfast… things that I must do every day. Once that is done, my mornings vary. But it’s so much easier to have a set routine for the first hours of the day.

    Exercise, again, is not the most exciting thing in the world to do, and I have a set time every afternoon to exercise. My routine varies: some days strength training, some days yoga. But the time frame is always the same. That way I have no excuse — that’s the time I exercise.

  • penelope schmitt

    True that autopilot is the friend of keeping habits going on some days. But mindfulness seems to me the key to keeping habitual actions fresh for the long run. What happens to me is that I keep doing habitual things, but lose the fresh joy that came with establishing those habits. Treating them more like a sacred ritual and less like going through the motions can quickly refresh one’s attitude. The erosion comes when the mind is able to wander while the action is being (ever more sloppily) accomplished. If I take a moment to gather my attention and focus, fresheness immediately comes back. It’s remembering to bring my attention to the moment that I forget.

    • Gillian

      Interesting approach, Penelope. I’m going to try to train my mind in that direction. My mind is often my greatest enemy – I am trying to tame it.

    • Greer Chesher

      You know, that’s interesting, Penelope. I often say that my best ideas come when my “monkey mind” is busy at some “mindless” task–like washing the dishes or cleaning horse stalls. When what I call my “surface” mind is busy, my deeper mind seems free to range over all sorts of topics, making connections “I” wouldn’t usually see, and BING! out pops an idea or answer previously unavailable to me. But then, perhaps that’s what you are talking about??

  • Maxi

    Yes, true for better or worse. I live in a beautiful place, the kind people travel great distances to see and perioodically as I go grocery shopping or to some errand I’ll look up at the mountains and remind myself “Oh this is beautiful! I’m lucky to live here!”.

    Otherwise it’s just everyday ho hum reality and not even noticed much less appreciated.

  • Bea Ramirez-Olivera

    very true for me, and is one of the reasons why i find life challenging. ideally i know balance is key.. to have a general idea of how to do things, what one’s habits must be and follow them maybe 80 percent of the time and giving oneself freedom to branch out once in a while. however, i tend to have a strong Rebellious tendency (i’m one of those Questioners) and have no inner alarm that goes “okay enough wandering now, reel yourself back in and do what you came here to do”..

  • Neither and both. We (should) develop habits to automate the activities we don’t want to experience consciously so that we have more attention and focus left over for the activities we do want to experience consciously.

  • I love the effects of habits – they leave me with more energy for the *stuff* that truly deserves it…

  • Imogene

    Hi. Not too crazy about either graphic, honestly. I like the colors on the second one, but feel like it’s missing something. I’ve always liked the Steven Covey (or is it really Eisenhower’s?) quadrant of important/not important/urgent/not urgent. Graphics are a tricky business — conveying complex ideas in a simple, creative way is quite difficult and, as much as I hate to criticize “the man in the arena,” I think the graphics need some more creativity. Best of luck with the new book!

  • Jane Gough

    First one by a long shot – second one looks like an eye test. Also the first one shows overlap and this is important as personality/behavior is fluid around the edges not rigidly consistent.

  • Pingback: Link Love 3.11.15 | Vivacions | Stories and strategy, amplified()

  • There are good habits and bad habits … but it’s up to us whether we allow a habit to become a monotonous obligation or something that energizes. Sometimes I find it difficult to be mindful when doing habitual activities, but every time I catch myself, slow down, and appreciate it, I wonder, what’s the rush?

  • Pingback: Portrait of an Obliger: William Shawn, Legendary Editor of The New Yorker - Intent Blog()