Whenever I read a book, I love to copy my favorite lines and passages into my giant trove of quotations. 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.