Pursuing the Excellent Life
March 8, 2023

Mindful Habits: Using Habits to Overcome Weakness of Will

In episode 53 of "Live Well and Flourish," host Craig discusses how to use mindful habits to overcome weakness of will. He explains that habits can hinder your ability to flourish, but developing virtuous habits can help you act automatically according to your values. To develop virtuous habits, Craig recommends developing mindful habits and suggests taking a deep breath before carrying out a daily habit to increase awareness. He also recommends picking one virtue to practice habitually and starting with small, easy ways to build the habit. Overall, the episode provides practical tips on how to use mindful habits to live an excellent life.

Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/

The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, hazel.crossler@gmail.com.

Production assistant - Paul Robert


Craig 00:00  

Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, I'm your host Craig Van Slyke. In this short episode, I discuss how to use the power of habits to overcome weakness of will. This episode kind of goes along with the last episode, which was on weakness of will or something called akrasia. Check it out at livewellandflourish.com/52 .

Habits can be a power for good or evil … well, not really evil, but habits can hinder your flourishing. Habits can lead you to act in ways that don’t align with how you want to act. You grab that second cookie without really thinking about it, or mindlessly pick up your phone when you’re at dinner with a friend. If you stopped to think about either of these actions, you'd probably decide not to have the cookie or not to grab your phone, but habit leads you to do so anyway. This is “habit as a force for evil.” We turn to habits because they’re efficient. Acting habitually doesn’t require much from your brain. That’s kind of the point. We don’t have time or the cognitive capacity to stop and think carefully about every little decision. One of the antidotes to weakness of will that I discussed last time was to overcome the power of automatic, habitual behaviors, at least for important things.

Craig 01:18 

But, in a funny twist (I guess if you have a sense of humor like mine), habits can also be used to help overcome weakness of will. The trick here is to develop the right sorts of habits, those that help you act in ways that align with who you want to be. Maybe we can call these kinds of habits “virtuous habits” or habits of virtue. These are habits that lead you to automatically act according to virtue. You’re automatically kind, or honest, or courageous. You don’t stop to think about it, you just let that person merge lanes, tell the truth, or you step up appropriately. If you want some more details on how to develop these sorts of habits check out my episode on Practice, Habit, and Being, at livewellandflourish.com/26 .

Craig 02:06 

Developing virtuous habits not only helps you act appropriately automatically without having to think about it, it also frees up brain power for times when more deliberation is needed. Sometimes the best decision isn’t immediately clear, so you need to think through things more carefully. When this happens, it’s important to have available brain capacity. Turning over some things to habit can help free up this capacity. To me it’s kind of like closing an application when your computer slows down. Of course, figuring out how to turn some things over to habit can be a little tricky.

Craig 02:43 

One way to do this is by developing something we can call mindful habits. Yeah, I know that’s kind of an oxymoron. Developing an awareness of when you act habitually can help you identify problematic habits and useful habits. For example, when I brush my teeth, I start with the upper right, then lower right, lower left, then upper left. Being aware of that habit is practicing mindful habits. This is a useful habit that aligns with my desire for good health. Unfortunately, when Tracy and I are watching TV in the evenings, when a commercial comes on, I reach for my phone. This is NOT a useful habit. In fact, it’s contrary to my desire to be more present with those I love. By the way, I've been working on this. Being mindful of this habit gives me the opportunity to find ways to break the habit. For example, I've started trying to leave my phone in the kitchen rather than carrying it out into the living room. Mindfulness is the precursor to dumping the habit. I won’t break it if I’m not aware of it.

Craig 03:46 

As I said, fortunately now that I’m aware of this negative habit, I can trade it for a useful habit. That's why I can start habitually leaving my phone in the kitchen, where it’s close enough if I need it, I can hear it ring, but not within easy reach, which blocks my bad habit. I have to decide to get up, move from my chair, walk into the kitchen and grab my phone. That little bit of deliberate processing, deliberate decision-making is enough to break the habit. If I can keep leaving my phone in the kitchen for long enough, that will become my habit.

Craig 04:21  

Alright, now let’s talk about how to put these ideas into practice. One easy thing to do is before carrying out a daily habit, like brushing your teeth or making your coffee, take a deep breath and focus on the feelings of the breath and your thoughts while breathing. This kind of triggers you to work towards being more mindful of your habits. You do something unusual, that kind of breaks that habitual behavior a little bit. 

The other thing I recommend is picking one virtue that you want to practice habitually. Start with some small, easy ways to start building that habit. If you want to be habitually grateful, make it a point to find small ways to show that gratitude. Maybe you just really look for opportunities to say or write “thank you.” Do this consistently and over time you’ll habitually act with gratitude.

OK, that’s it for now. Talk to you next time!