Making Effortlessness a Habit
We’ve all seen the teen drama stereotype of the exasperated parent, the one who knows how bright and promising their child is despite that child’s seemingly reckless and/or apathetic behavior. “You could do so much, Kevin, if you’d only apply yourself!” they cry out in desperation, while the teen sits sullenly. It’s a cliche, right? The problem with these kids is never in what they can do, but what they want to do, which is usually quite different from what the so-called adults in their lives want them to do. Thus, friction so common it’s become a trope.
I identify with the teens. I don’t feel pushed around and bullied anymore, now that I’m a so-called adult and people are forced by the miracle of age to respect my choices. But I still have problems applying myself.
I like to sleep in. I like to watch television, even bad television. I like to read novels and lounge around the house. I indulge in laziness and escapism. When I work, I put more time and effort than necessary into projects of my own invention and procrastinate the jobs other people have given me to do. I don’t use my time effectively. I indulge in distraction and discursiveness. I don’t like to meditate. I don’t like to do my assigned readings. I don’t like to clean my house. Even though I know these things are good for me. They’re what I ought to be doing and what I’ve committed myself to do.
It’s just that some things require so much effort! And some things are easy.
But why is that? This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. Why is doing my assigned readings any more difficult than blog surfing on the internet? They’re both reading. They’re both engage my intellectual, critical thinking, and memory faculties. So why do I gravitate towards one and not the other?
This genuinely bothers me. I think about it a lot, every time I try to turn over a new leaf, which is just about every other week. I tell myself there’s actually no difference. Doing my assigned readings is not hard. It does not require effort. It’s easy! And that lasts for a day, maybe two, then I fall right back into my old habits.
Ah! So that’s what it is – habit! If we want to give it a Buddhist spin, we could call it karma, but let’s stick with the common word for now. Google says the definition of habit is “A settled or regular tendency or practice, esp. one that is hard to give up.” Yeah! No kidding. Wikipedia has an entry on habit under psychology which goes into a little more depth. (If you don’t trust Wikipedia, feel free to follow the citations to the source links. Yes, I mean you, Danny Fisher.)
Habits (or wonts) are routines of behavior that are repeated regularly and tend to occur subconsciously. Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed in persons exhibiting it, because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when undertaking routine tasks. Habituation is an extremely simple form of learning, in which an organism, after a period of exposure to a stimulus, stops responding to that stimulus in varied manners. Habits are sometimes compulsory. The process by which new behaviours become automatic is habit formation. Examples of habit formation are the following: If you instinctively reach for a cigarette the moment you wake up in the morning, you have a habit. Also, if you lace up your running shoes and hit the streets as soon as you get home, you’ve acquired a habit. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form because the behavioural patterns we repeat are imprinted in our neural pathways.
We’re still talking about things we pretty much already knew, but with an added twist. Habits are subconscious meaning we don’t have to think about them. So is that what defines effort? That’s is conscious and thought through? Is that why going against our habits is so difficult? But is thinking really that hard? Let’s go a little deeper, to a paper by Wendy Wood and David Neal at Duke University published in the Psychological Review. They even have a handy-dandy chart to help it make sense.
Habits emerge from the gradual learning of associations between responses and the features of performance contexts that have historically covaried with them (e.g., physical settings, preceding actions). Once a habit is formed, perception of contexts triggers the associated response without a mediating goal. Nonetheless, habits interface with goals. Constraining this interface, habit associations accrue slowly and do not shift appreciably with current goal states or infrequent counterhabitual responses. Given these constraints, goals can (a) direct habits by motivating repetition that leads to habit formation and by promoting exposure to cues that trigger habits, (b) be inferred from habits, and (c) interact with habits in ways that preserve the learned habit associations.
So habits are both created by goals and goals are determined by habits. Self-control mediates, but only if that control is strong…and it’s a good day…and you’re not too tired…and you have the time to stop and think about what you’re doing. Sounds like a nasty loop to be caught in. How do we get out of it? According to Wood and Neal, it’s not easy, but we can self-regulate habit formation through three strategies.
First, habits can work in the service of goals. Consistent with the idea that people can form habits when they repeatedly pursue a particular means to a goal in a given context, habits typically remain correlated with and thus continue to serve people’s goals (e.g., Ouellette & Wood, 1998). We also speculated that people can, through goal pursuit, place themselves in contexts that cue habits. Second, people can infer goals from their habitual behavior, and they plausibly use these post hoc inferences in self-regulatory processes to guide habit responding. Third, goals and habits interact when both are present to guide performance. Specifically, when in concert with habits, goals tend to be epiphenomena in guiding behavior (e.g., Ouellette & Wood, 1998). When in conflict with habits, goals by themselves have limited capacity to break habits, except when alterations occur in the cues that trigger habits (Wood et al., 2005) and when people exert effortful self-control to inhibit habit performance and, when desired, to implement new, goal-consistent behaviors (e.g., Neal & Wood, 2007; Quinn et al., 2007; Vohs et al., 2005).
This is why college students have study spots, like the library or a coffee shop. We’re intentionally cuing a habit with a context in order to meet a conscious goal. This is why people do things at certain times of the day, like always meditating just after you wake up or always chanting just before bed. We can also learn about ourselves and our subconscious goals by examining our habitual behavior. This has been the goal of meditation for thousands of years, to see how the mind works and therefore short-circuit its habit forming processes. However, this is hard. Habits can easily dominate and subvert goals. It takes effort to realign our habits in service of goals.
Which explains, at least in part, why I can’t always apply myself fully. I find developing time-based habits extremely difficult because my schedule changes so often, at least three or four times a year. I just get used to waking up early when all my classes switch to the afternoon. Go figure. Context based habits are a little easier, which is why I like having an office and I’m more productive when I’m there. However, I’m also an introvert who needs to be alone to recharge. The best place for that is at home, but home is a context associated with relaxation and goofing off. Also, my mobility has been fairly limited, so changing contexts requires time and energy. So what’s a girl to do?
Well, I can think of two strategies, one of them conventional and the other a little more ultimate. The conventional one is to attempt to better self-regulate my context-based habits. Work on job assignments in my office. Work on extracurricular projects in the student association office. Work on schoolwork in the library. Spend less time at home, and when I am home, relax in the living room and work at my desk. My mobility has recently been augmented by the recent purchase of a scooter, which will hopefully make life easier. That’s the conventional strategy. It turns bad habits into good and thus reduces the effort necessary to do what I ought to be doing.
The other strategy is a little more ultimate in that it’s also concerned with ultimate means and ends in the end of suffering sense of the word. Practice! After all, this problem isn’t new. We don’t need the latest findings of the American Psychological Association to understand it; they just couch it in language Western academics may find easier to apprehend. But centuries before the APA ever existed, the Buddha saw this clearly.
Buddhist literature, especially in the Theravada tradition, frequently talks about doing away with bad habits, like anger, hate, and laziness, and cultivating good habits, like compassion, generosity, and diligence. Habit can be both good and bad, according to Nyanaponika Thera in a post on Access to Insight.
The influence habit exercises for the good is seen in the “power of repeated practice.” This power protects our achievements and skills — whether manual or mental, worldly or spiritual — against loss or forgetfulness, and converts them from casual, short-lived, imperfect acquisitions into the more secure possession of a quality thoroughly mastered. The detrimental effect of habitual spontaneous reactions is manifest in what is called in a derogative sense the “force of habit”: its deadening, stultifying and narrowing influence productive of compulsive behavior of various kinds.
This detrimental effect is even worse than simple compulsive behavior because of that deadening and stultifying. We don’t notice things we might otherwise see. We rush about willy-nilly without paying attention to those around us. This creates the possibility of doing incalculable harm through our habitual responses without even noticing. In this sense, habits have farm more potential for damage than even our most passionate impulses. (Some people make a habit of passionate impulses.) No doubt this understanding gave birth the the phrase “The opposite of good is not evil, but indifference.” When we cultivate a habit of not looking, we harm ourselves and others because we rob ourselves of the opportunity to be mindful and thus skillful.
In Buddhist terms, it is preeminently the hindrance of sloth and torpor (thina-middha nivarana) which is strengthened by the force of habit, and it is the mental faculties such as agility and pliancy of mind (kaya and citta-lahuta, etc.) that are weakened. …
Detrimental physical or mental habits may grow strong, not only if fostered deliberately, but also if left unnoticed or unopposed.
Habits form in the absence of effort. In order to understand an alter them (not just discard them), we must apply ourselves to the task.
Of course it would be absurd to advocate that all our little habits be abolished, for many are innocuous and even useful. But we should regularly ask ourselves whether we still have control over them, whether we can give them up or alter them at will. We can answer this question for ourselves in two ways: by attending to our habitual actions mindfully for a certain period of time, and second, by actually giving them up temporarily in cases where this will not have any harmful or disturbing effects upon ourselves or others.
Nyanaponika Thera suggests we start small, by looking at little things and trying to change them. When we start exercising, we can’t lift the hundred-pound weight right away, so we start with then ten-pound weight. If we can life that often enough, we gain the strength to tackle the big things. This strengthening also gives us energy and “vigor.” I know I could desperately use some of that to pour into my effort reservoir.
We should also cultivate clear and direct vision. Thus my need to Practice! From this vision comes a sense of urgency. This can be another source of energy.
One who has clear and direct vision, stirred to a sense of urgency (samvega) by things which are deeply moving, will experience a release of energy and courage enabling him to break through his timid hesitations and his rigid routine of life and thought. If that sense of urgency is kept alive, it will bestow the earnestness and persistence required for the work of liberation.
Thus said the teachers of old:
“This very world here is our field of action.
It harbors the unfoldment of the holy path,
And many things to break complacency,
Be stirred by things which may well move the heart,
And being stirred, strive wisely and fight on!”
Mindfulness itself will one day become effortless. We will see and cut the changes of our karma. All our habitual patterns will fall away and we will be able to react to each and every moment from a place of effortless wisdom and compassion. Won’t that be nice?
But until then, I guess I’ll just keep putting in the effort. I think I need to go drink some coffee and meditate now…