Thoughts on habit and its effects

Here’s a thought I had:

As I grow older I can see that habit is an increasing problem.  I find it hard to stop habits and it seems to make me “rigid”.  When I look out at older people I can see that they have these problems too.  It seems that many problems, seen as you get older, are really problems of habit.


As I use it here, habit is an consistent pattern of behavior that comes from, and is repetitively supported, by experience.  In other words, habit originates from behavior that works or that a person believes works. 

Once the habit behavior is established, and works, one tends to disregard the behavior consciously and “forget” it.  As a result, the habit behavior “lives on its own”, independently of the person.

Habit has many beneficial qualities, such as:

  • Habit behavior makes life easier.  In short, it saves effort.  We don’t have to think or consider what we’re doing.
  • Habit makes us do more.  Without habit we’d have to watch everything we do.  Habit free’s us up to do more things.


Habit is something that is particularly beneficial when we’re younger (such as is described above).  As we get older, though, it can become a hindrance and can practically impair us.  This reveals that there are actually stages or phases to the development of habit in ones life.  These appear to be:

  1. Learning habit behavior with activity – early years
  2. Solidifying habit behavior with continued success – mid years
  3. Ingrained habit behavior from long-standing performance of the habit behavior – later years

This is the general pattern of life, overall.  Once a person reaches their later years, the habits often become so ingrained and rigid causing many older people to become “slaves to habit” as a result of this process.  I think some people are greatly impaired by it.

I should point out that the process described above seems to also be seen in any specific habit behavior.  In this way, we could say that there are two forms of habit that display the process above:

  1. Habit of a specific behavior.  Any specific behavior pattern can display a learning, solidifying, and ingraining pattern.  It may take days, weeks, years to develop this whole process, depending on the habit.
  2. Habit as an overall life experience.  A persons life, as a whole, tends to describe this process.  As a result, as one reaches the later years the ingrained habit tends to dominate.


There is a close association between habit and the self.  Even though they are opposed to each other in quality they depend on each other to function.  The self is the part of us that “takes control”, does deliberate action, and is conscious.  Habit, on the other hand, does the opposite.  It does not “take control”, does no deliberate action, and is not conscious.  In short, habit takes the lesser, mundane, residue, and repetitive actions of life.  In so doing, habit allows the self to become more dominant giving it more “independence”, impact, and influence.  Because of this, as the self develops and grows, so does habit.  This is rather ironic as a strong self usually means a need to “control” but, in actuality, a strong self causes an absence of control, through habit, which gets stronger through the years.  I call this the “self/habit dilemma”.  I find that males, especially, suffer from this “self/habit dilemma” as they get older.

The self/habit association shows a number of points about habit:

  • The self/habit association shows that habit is a behavior without self.  That is to say, it works independently of self and does not need it to function.  In this way, habit can take on a quality of “another personality”, in a way, or “another mind”.
  • Because of the association between self and habit its clear that when the self is not strong, habit is not strong, and vice-versa.  In other words, there is less habit when there is less self.  This is why a person without a strong self (and, accordingly, without strong habit) is more spontaneous and “reactive” to the current situation.  This shows a basic fact of habit:  that the habit behavior is a reaction toward a repetitive situation, event, or condition, that is responded to in an identical way.  In other words, habit is not spontaneous, is not controlling, and does not “think” before it acts . . .  it just does.  This gives it a more mechanistic, almost robot-like, quality.

The relationship between habit behavior and the self, in regard to three phases described above, can be illustrated in this way:

  1. Learning behavior behavior – the self has control (the self is active, having “fun”, discovering, etc. . . . habit is forming from experience)
  2. Solidifying habit behavior – the self loses control (the self is being “eased” by habit, and relaxed but, in so doing, it slowly loses control)
  3. Ingrained habit behavior – the self lost control (the self becomes detached from habit behavior and struggles with it)

What we see, then, is a slow detachment of the self with the habit behavior to the point that the self no longer has control.  In effect, habit undermines the self’s control.  In fact, once a habit becomes ingrained it means that the self has become detached from the behavior and no longer has control over it.  

Some qualities as a result of ingrained habit include:

  • An inability to change.  There are times that you cannot change habit regardless of what you do.  Other times, it takes some effort.
  • Disconnected or out-of-place thought, behavior, or action.  Because the behavior is ingrained it may not fit the current situation.  It may make people seem weird or odd.
  • What seems like memory loss.  I tend to believe that a lot of so-called memory loss, in old age, is not memory loss at all, but a form of ingrained habit (see below).
  • A “deadening” or apathetic sense in life.  Once habit takes control it starts to control our life and we actually lose control.  This causes life to become “dead”.  This also causes an apathy as well.


Since habit creates a mechanistic behavior, that develops a “life of its own”, there is a tendency for it to persist even when it is no longer relevant.  In other words, habit tends to cause us to behave in a “false” way.  That is to say, we are not being genuine with ourselves. In this way, habit often tends to alienate ourselves from our self.  We are no longer acting the way we are but how habit makes us do.  Some of the problems this causes include:

  • It can create a “false happiness” that we really don’t feel
  • It can continue problems, issues, and dilemma’s that are no longer relevant
  • It makes us not know why we act the way we do

In some ways, habit makes us act according to conditions of “yesteryear”, that are often no longer relevant or true.  In this way, its as if habit makes us “live in the past” and not in the “now”.  So not only does habit not make us genuine with ourselves but it does not make us genuine with the times.  We are reacting to conditions that aren’t there any more.  This makes us do this things like fabricate “issues” and conflicts when there really isn’t any.


Oftentimes, there is a tendency to seek refuge in habit.  There’s a number of reasons for this:

  • Its illusion of control (by repetition) often make it an easy way to “seem to be in control” of conflicts.  By “allowing habit to take over” it appears as if you have taken over.
  • Its consistent pattern of behavior creates a quality of “comfort” and ease.  It creates a quality of behavior that is much like a lounge chair, you just immerse yourself in it and relax.

Many older people, it seems to me, often seek refuge in habit.  It becomes like a warm blanket they cuddle up in.

But, it seems that if a person seeks refuge in habit, in any great amount, they “give up their life to habit”, and their self deteriorates, causing them to go into something like an apathy.  Life can almost come to a halt for some people.  It just as if “ends”.  What this shows is that “giving up ones life to habit” tends to cause apathy.  This is one of the problems that can happen when one seeks refuge in habit.


I tend to feel that many problems people have are really caused by ingrained habit, of “reacting to past problems that are no longer relevant”, and are not “real problems” in themselves.  The “problem” is something that has passed but habit makes it “live on and on” and giving an illusion that it is legitimate.  In some ways, various conflicts and issues are continued just by habit alone, even though they have no meaning.  I speak of this condition as the “habit sickness”.  I think its far more prevalent than it may seem.

I think that one of the problems this causes is a misdiagnosis of problems not only by therapists but by people in their everyday life.  Basically, there is a tendency to look at and treat the “problem that the habit reflects” when the problem that caused the habit is no longer relevant.  This means that treating the problem doesn’t do anything.  What they should be treating is the habit and not the problem!  This is rather interesting as its suggesting that there is a “habit therapy”.


I tend to think that habit makes it harder to learn something new.  Here are few reasons why:

  • Learning new things requires an openness and spontaneity that habit tends to undermine.
  • Habitual patterns of thought can become so rigid or ingrained that we see no other alternative.
  • Habitual patterns of thought and behavior can become a “knowledge” in themselves, dictating how we view and react with the world.  Once it seems to “work” there is no incentive to “learn more”.

These make it so that the more prevalent habit is in a person the harder it is to learn new things.  Its almost like a person “gets in a rut they can’t get out of”.  This is one reason why I think its actually harder to learn when one gets older than when one is young.


As I said above, habit tends to create what appears to be a memory loss.  Basically, when things do not fit the pattern established by habit then it causes people to “not notice”, trivialize, or disregard it.  As a result, they don’t “ingest” it and, accordingly, don’t acknowledge it deep down . . . they appear to “forget” it or have memory loss.  Another way to look at it is that habit makes us expect things to be a certain way.  As a result, we expect it to be that way.  If it doesn’t happen that way then we are oblivious to it even though it may be directly in front of us.  In other words, a lot of “memory loss” in older people is really the effects of habit and not actual memory loss.  I think this phenomena is very prevalent when one gets older.


When a person becomes too reliant on habit it can affect and even impair how they deal and associate with life and situations.  Because habit is based in reacting to things in a predetermined way, habit can affect how one deals with situations.  In short, habit tends to restrict our reactions of things according to a predetermined pattern.  This can create a number of effects:

  • It creates a quality of a “narrow mindedness” or a “limited thinking”, even to the point of being “stupid”.
  • It makes us interpret things in an established predetermined way that may not fit the situation.
  • It makes it so that we look at things in a rigid and unchanging way.

If its extensive it can impair our ability to deal with situations, because our thinking is too narrow, rigid, and predetermined.  This rigid habit-based mentality is not really that conducive to the variable and ever-changing situations of life . . . it can make it difficult to associate with life.  I feel that, with some people, this becomes such a problem that it actually “forces” them into a reclusive-like lifestyle where they don’t want to participate in life anymore (a retirement).


As we grow we tend to think about things.  We develop viewpoints, perspectives, beliefs, etc. based in thought.  This is normal.  But, sometimes, specific patterns of thought can become a habit.  This can get so bad that we actually enslave ourselves with thought and our thought becomes a prison.  We cannot think “any other way”.  It becomes rigid and unchanging.  The reason why this is so important is that thought is often the base for things like:

  • Emotions
  • Ones stance in life
  • How one behaves
  • Ones attitudes
  • How one reacts to things
  • How one solves problems and situations

As a result, habit-in-thought can have great and tremendous influence on ones life.  I think many people struggle with the effects of habit-in-thought in later years.  They cannot overcome the patterns of thought they have developed in the course of their life.


When a habit is learned from example it is often hard to get rid of.  This is especially true if one just “adopts it” without thought or consideration.  If one adopts habit-by-example with consideration then its less likely to happen as one “chooses” to adopt the habit.

Habit-by-example is hard to get rid of because of things like these:

  • The example does not have an origin in the self nor does it have any prompting from the self.  It does not originate from ones own experience, insight, etc..  Therefore, it originates from outside of ones self.
  • What sets the example as if replaces ones self.  In other words, it takes the place of ones self.

These make it so that one is not in control of the habit.  It is created as if independent of the self.  Because of this, habit-by-example may be hard to break.  This can be the case in both good and bad example.  In good example, though it may be good, its still not something that came from us.  This is the illusion of good example.  We’re just imitating the “good”, more or less . . . it doesn’t really reflect us.  In bad example, of course, its not only bad but we’re not in control of it.  It seems, to me, that habit-by-example is best if we use the example as a base and build upon it.


I think that many people becomes so rigid in habit that they have to go into what can be described as a “forced retirement” later in life.  That is to say, they have to “live in their own world of habit” instead of the real world.  I call this the “habit world”.  For many people, this is basically retirement.  Its like retreating into a shell.  But, while there, they usually only sink further into their habit patterns.


I think we all have problems with habit in our lives and there is a tendency to try and unlearn it, at least to some extent.  I tend to think that,as we get older, there needs to be more of a concerted effort to decrease ones habits.  I think that many people will naturally adopt some measures to do this as one gets older, often without their realizing it.

There are levels of habit.  Some habits are superficial and some are deep.  The level of habit can determine how easy it is to get rid of.  Generally, the deeper the habit is the more difficult they are to get rid of.

Some things that effect the depth of habits include:

  • How early they develop.  It seems that, the earlier the habit originates, the deeper it is and harder to get rid of.
  • If the habit is involved with a crisis.  A habit associated with crisis makes it very critical to a person.  As a result, its harder to get rid of.
  • How long the habits have existed.  Generally, the longer the habit has existed the harder it is to get rid of.
  • How effective they are.  If habits are very effective in a persons life, we tend to rely on them.  This makes them harder to get rid of.
  • If they have benefited a person.  If they have helped us we tend to depend on them making them harder to get rid of.

Some habits, think, are so deep that you can’t get rid of them.  In other words, some habits are unchangeable and constant.

Some techniques that might help get rid of habits include:

  • A deliberate effort to unlearn.   This seems to be more effective when your young  . . . its easier to learn something new.  Basically, whenever you notice it you try to stop yourself.
  • An awareness of how habits effect on ones life.  
  • An absence of self.  Trying to forget one self helps one to be spontaneous and reactive to the situation.
  • Not having to control things.  Since the self is associated with control, its best not to try to be in control of everything.
  • Regular distractions.
  • An active life, always doing something.
  • Being exposed to conditions requiring new behavior. 
  • An attitude of looking out into the world, of discovery, and wonder.   
  • Being like a child.
  • Looking at life as if you are “dumb” or that you don’t understand everything . . . develop an attitude of humility.
  • Being spontaneous.
  • Continually seeking how we feel . . . seeking to be more genuine.
  • Learning new things.
  • An avoidance of repetition.
  • Occasionally, put yourself in situations that isn’t all that comforting.  This is because there is a tendency to immerse yourself in habit (as described above) so that it is comforting and puts one at ease.
  • Try to vary your thinking and views . . . don’t remain rigid in thought.
  • Try to continually participate in the world and do things.  

To me, this almost needs a lifestyle or attitude to do.  Many people, I think, will naturally take on some of these traits.  I tend to think that habit is such a part of life that we will be fighting its effects all our life.  Its a fight that never ends.

Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Advice???, Aging and getting older, Life in general, Psychology and psychoanalysis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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