Pursuing the Excellent Life
March 16, 2022

Practice, Habit and Being

In the final episode of the mini-series on Self-Leadership, Craig discusses Aristotle's practice-habit-being method of developing virtue. He focuses on the role of habit, and describes how habits are built and broken. Listen and learn how the power of habit can help you become the person you want to be, and how intentional practice can move you towards flourishing.

Mini-Series on Self-Leadership

Pillars of Self-Leadership: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/the-pillars-of-self-leadership/ 

Living a Life of Purpose: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/living-a-life-of-purpose/

Living Well Through Mindfulness: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/living-well-through-mindfulness/ 

Living Well Through Reflection: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/living-well-through-reflection/

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

Production assistant - Paul Robert



Craig 00:10 

Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.


Craig 00:30 

Habitual behavior is a necessary part of making our way in the world, habits are also central to flourishing. But, habits can be a force for good or evil; sometimes habits help us, sometimes habits are barriers to our growth and flourishing. In this episode I discuss a chain of activities that can help you form habits that move you towards being the sort of person you want to be, and towards flourishing. This chain starts with practice, which, over time, can lead to habit, and ultimately to being. This episode also concludes our mini-series on self-leadership. For new listeners, the series on self-leadership is based on what I call the four pillars of self-leadership: purposefulness, mindfulness, reflection, and practice. You can find the other self-leadership episodes on livewellandflourish.com, or in the show notes.


Craig 01:20  

How would you like to have your habits work for you, not against you? Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But how can you do this? Let’s turn to Aristotle for some ideas.


Aristotle believed that moral virtues (or what he called excellences of character) are cultivated through habituation. Habituation basically means acting automatically according to habit rather than through conscious, deliberative thought. According to Aristotle, we learn excellences of character by performing virtuous acts, and avoiding non-virtuous acts. So, for your habits to help in your flourishing, you have to build habits that help you automatically act according to virtue, and automatically avoid acting contrary to virtue. Let me paraphrase Aristotle:


Craig 02:06 

“For the way we learn the things we should do, knowing how to do them, is by doing them. For example, people become builders by building, and lyre-players by playing the lyre, and so too, then, we become just by doing just things, temperate by doing temperate things, and courageous by doing courageous things.”


The importance of habits has been recognized by psychologists since at least the late 1800s. In 1890, William James wrote: “Habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.” James goes on to recognize the benefits of habit:


“The more details of our life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism [habit], the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”


Craig 02:54 

More recently, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote about System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 thinking is automatic and effortless, it’s kind of the brain’s autopilot. System 2 thinking is deliberate and requires effort. Both are necessary. Can you imagine having to consciously think about the act of walking? We’d never get anywhere! The vast majority of our thinking is System 1 thinking. System 1 thinking is very efficient cognitively, it just sort of happens. You can use this to great advantage, as long as your habits are the right ones.


Craig 03:29 

How does harnessing the power of the practice-habit-being chain work in real life? Let me demonstrate through a true story. Back in my younger days, I was a bit of an angry driver, even though I was considered pretty even-tempered generally (At least I think I was). When another driver did something I considered stupid or disrespectful, I would yell at them with gusto. Now, I didn’t roll down my window and start screaming at them. I would just holler in the confines of my car, and I wouldn't chase them down (It was kind of a private moment). My guess is that the other driver generally had no idea I was yelling at him. Frankly, I thought this was a pretty harmless release. Let's fast forward to when I met my wife Tracy. After we were together for a while, I noticed that when I would get mad while driving, she would kind of retreat into herself. It turned out that she had been around a man who, when angry, would get abusive. So, my anger triggered her fear, even though I was never abusive towards her (and never would be). Once I realized what was happening, I consciously worked to control my anger. It wasn’t easy at first, I had to work pretty hard at keeping my cool. But over time, I developed the habit of suppressing my anger while driving. Some time later I was visiting Orlando, and was driving somewhere with long-time friends as passengers. I’ve known this couple most of my life. The wife, Lisa, looked over at me and asked, “When did you become a calm driver?” We all laughed, but this comment was a revelation for me. I had BECOME a calm driver. That became part of who I am. So, I first realized that my anger was having a negative effect on someone I loved. Then, I consciously practiced being calm in the presence of triggers that formerly made me angry. In time, I developed a habit of being calm in traffic, and finally simply became a calm driver through the chain of practice-habit-being.


Craig 05:25 

Let’s generalize this. First, I needed to understand that calmness was a virtue worth pursuing. Then, I needed to understand the circumstances that led me to being angry, rather than calm. Over repeated, conscious practice of reacting differently to these circumstances, I habitually remained calm while driving. Finally, I just became a calm driver, part of who I was. I should note that mindfulness was important here. The initial trigger for all of this was becoming aware, or being mindful, of Tracy’s reaction to my anger.


The role of mindfulness is interesting. In a recent episode on mindfulness, I extolled the benefits of becoming more mindful, and I stand by my claims. But, there are also benefits to mindlessness, so long as we mindlessly do the right things. I view virtue habituation as a sort of useful mindfulness.


Craig 06:20 

Habitual behaviors are driven by contextual cues -- stupid drivers in my case. Habits are formed through repeated, consistent responses to a cue. Habits develop slowly and incrementally. Each repetition of the cue-habit pair strengthens the connection between the cue and the response. This happens through small changes in our brains. Usually, we build habits without intention; typically we don’t start out to build a specific habit, it just sort of happens. But, we CAN intentionally build habits, in fact intentionally building habits is pretty common when learning to do something. I remember hating running scales when learning the trombone, but repeatedly playing scales builds small habits that lead to becoming a skilled musician, or at least a competent musician in my case. The same applies to sports, driving, cooking, or innumerable other activities, and to flourishing through the development of virtues.


Craig 07:19 

Now let’s examine what it takes to build a habit. Psychologists Wendy Wood and Dennis Runger point out that habit formation depends on three things: repetition, stable contexts, and appropriate reward schedules. I’ve already talked about the importance of repetition. The stable context requirement basically means that habits are built when we are repeatedly exposed to the same triggering cues. Taking advantage of this requires awareness of important cues. In the early stages of habit formation, you need to become aware of and recognize cues that you want to trigger certain responses. Rewards are also important in building habits. Repeatedly touching a hot stove probably won’t build a habit of touching hot stoves because there is no associated reward, unless you’re into such things I suppose. But when there is a pleasurable reward from a trigger-response relationship, our brains produce small amounts of dopamine that can strengthen the habitual response. Keep in mind that these rewards don’t need to be externally bestowed, self-rewards work perfectly well.


Craig 08:24 

So, let’s put this in practical terms. Think of something you want to incorporate into your being, something you want as part of who you are. Let’s say you want to be a kind person. The first step is to pay attention to the cues that can trigger you to be kind or unkind. This requires mindfulness and a bit of reflection. Then, consciously and deliberately practice responding to those cues in a way that matches the virtue of kindness. When you successfully respond appropriately, give yourself some small mental reward. Even just pausing for a moment and congratulating yourself on making progress is often enough to be effective.


Let’s consider a more mundane example. Suppose you want to start eating carrots as a snack rather than chips. First, identify the cues that lead you to eat chips. Maybe you reach for the chip bag as soon as you get home from work. If so, you’ll need to consciously choose to eat carrots instead. You can use little tricks such as putting a note on the chip bag that says “Carrots!!” or constantly moving the chip bag to a different location so you can’t just grab the bag automatically. Given sufficient time and repetition, you will gradually build the habit of eating the delicious and nutritious carrots as your home-from-work snack.


Craig 09:38 

Breaking negative habits also starts with identifying the cues that lead you to the undesired behavior, such as the stupid driver triggering my anger. Once you recognize the trigger, you can begin practicing acting differently in response to the trigger. Maybe you sigh and shake your head instead of yelling. Or maybe you just train yourself to not react emotionally at all. One effective way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit, as in the example of replacing chips with carrots.


When breaking a bad habit, it’s useful to change your environment in a way that impedes the habitual response, as in the example of moving the chips around. You might also want to make the carrots more accessible than the chips. This can work really well. A number of years ago, I decided I was eating too many peanut butter M&Ms (they’re just so tasty!). So, I asked Tracy to start hiding the bag of M&Ms. (She also enjoyed them, but in appropriate amounts, so it wasn’t fair to just get rid of the treats.) It became a bit of a joke that I would occasionally ask Tracy where she hid the M&Ms. Then she’d have to find a new hiding spot. But even when this happened, my consumption of the candy was deliberative, and not just habitual.


Craig 10:49 

Keep in mind that there will be slips, times when you don’t act the way you want to act. When these happen, reflect on why you acted negatively. Did you miss a cue? Were there other aspects of the context that threw you off track? It's really important to remember not to get down on yourself, missteps are gonna happen. The important thing is to continually get better. After consistent practice over some period of time, you’ll start to habitually act in accordance with the virtue you seek; eventually that virtue will be part of your being, part of who you are.


You might have noticed that I keep saying “after some period of time” (or something to that effect). If so, you might be wondering, “How long is this ‘period of time’”? Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of good evidence regarding how long it takes to build a solid habit, other than building habits is a slow process. I’ve seen estimates ranging from a couple of weeks to 9 months. The real answer is, as long as it takes. So, it’s really important to realize that this is a slow process, and to not expect too much too soon. Habits just take time, but I think the investment is worthwhile.


Craig 12:01 

OK, let’s get to three things you can do this week to help you build habits that move you towards flourishing.


First, I'd like you to think about two habits that you would like to build. You might want to consider one virtue-based habit, such as becoming more patient, and one concrete habit, such as reading something informative each evening. You might want to think about your purpose when considering these. If you can tie your new habit to your purpose, then reward yourself when you act accordingly, the pleasure you receive from working towards your purpose will help you reinforce the habit.


But even if you haven't settled on your purpose, go ahead and try to think about two habits that would be applicable regardless of what your purpose is. Second, pay careful attention to cues that can trigger your performance of the behavior. Find regular things in your environment that can act as cues. Maybe clearing the dinner dishes can be your cue to sit and read, or feeling your pulse rate rise can be your cue to breathe deeply and relax rather than becoming impatient.


Craig 13:02 

Remember, consistent responses to cues are the key to building habits. Finally, pick just one of these, and consciously practice the behavior. After the first one becomes habitual, work on the second one. I think it’s important to avoid working on too many things at once. This could quickly become overwhelming. There’s an old joke among runners: How do you run a marathon? The answer is: One step at a time. The same is true of building habits. Just focus on one at a time, and before you know it, you’ll have made great strides in your self-leadership, and your flourishing.


Craig  13:36 

Well, that’s it for this week. As is my custom, I’ll leave you with a quote. This one, from John Stuart Mill, is one of my favorites: “The moral, like the mental and muscular powers, must be exercised to be improved.” So, start working your moral muscles. When you do, you’ll become a better person, and the world will become a better place.


Until next time my friends … Thank you.


Craig 14:00 

I produce Live Well And Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com. Until next time.