Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Habit

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 31, 2010

Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winning zoologist, had a pet goose that he allowed the run of the house. The first day when the goose waddled in the door, there happened to be a mirror near floor height; the goose mistook his own reflection for some rival bird and flew into attack mode.

Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz and friend

He pecked the hell out of the mirror before moving on to the kitchen and the rest of his day. Next morning: same thing. After a few days, Mrs. Lorenz removed the mirror so it wouldn’t get broken—but the goose kept pecking the same spot. It never stopped. Over a lifetime, every time that goose webfooted its way into the Lorenz house it was compelled to peck that very spot where the mirror had been.

That’s habit. But here’s the intriguing part: the goose’s offspring, who had never seen the mirror, learned the habit too. Two generations later, every one of them, when it first entered the house, was still pecking the spot on the wall where the original goose had kicked off these shenanigans years earlier.

The point of this story is that habit is powerful, not only among us humans but in the animal kingdom as well.

Habit can be a mighty ally in the day-to-day struggle against Resistance.

We usually think of habits as bad. A drug habit, an alcohol habit. But habits can be tremendously positive too. The habit of going to the gym, of meditating, of daily visiting someone who could use a little kindly attention.

What I’m trying to do, myself, day-by-day in my professional regimen, is to reinforce the habit of a regular work schedule. I don’t succeed all the time. Days definitely get away from me. But the goal never changes and I never let up. I want to build a groove, I want to establish a positive, momentum-generating pattern.

Why? Because habit eliminates thought. Negative, Resistance-spawned thought. If I’m a ballet dancer and I make it my business to take class every morning, habit will compel me to get ready mentally the night before. When morning comes and it’s time for class, habit makes me grab my gym bag without thinking about it, throw in my sweats, my shoes, my Evian water. Habit keeps Resistance from raising its ugly head and starting to talk me into sluffing off. Before I know it, I’m out the door and on my way to class.

The Muse favors habit. Each day when she looks down on us from Mt. Olympus, her first question is: Where is that S.O.B. who was sniveling and beseeching my aid yesterday? If she sees us in our studio, at our desk, making our calls, a warm glow suffuses her immortal heart. Ah, she says to herself, a true devotee! The Muse is like any other boss; she values talent, yes, but what she favors even more is devotion, dedication, perseverance. When she sees our butts in our seats, she can’t help herself; “Okay, okay, I’ll give this poor sucker a couple of ideas today.”

Habit builds up energy over time. The repetition of any action–good or evil–generates power. Energy concentrates and accumulates. Bad habits become harder to break. But good habits do too.

If we think about collective endeavors, like team sports or military drills, the process of “training” is primarily the inculcation of habit. Our basketball coach makes us go to practice every day. He’ll bench us if we’re late or miss entirely. Why? Because he knows how powerful habit is, for good or ill. In the army we run Immediate Action Drills in case we’re ambushed or come under fire. Why? So we don’t have to think when trouble strikes. Habit will take over and save our lives.

In sports or the military (or any communal endeavor), discipline and habit are imposed on us from the outside. Some VP or senior staffer makes us do it. In the world or the arts and entrepreneurship, it’s different. We’re on our own there. We have to teach ourselves the right habits. Our discipline as artists must be self-discipline. We ourselves have to make ourselves show up, run those lay-up drills, do those wind sprints. We need to reward ourselves when we do well, and take ourselves to the woodshed when we drop the ball.

The goal is habit-inculcation to overcome Resistance.

Habit borders on superstition. If we could look into Konrad Lorenz’s goose’s head, my bet is that there was a ritual component to its pecking of the wall. “I did this before and that Bad Goose ran away; if I do it again he’ll bolt today too.” Superstition gets a bad rap these days; it’s perceived as irrational, nutty, OCD-esque. But ritual has been a powerful tool since cave man days. It’s a tremendous weapon against Resistance.

But the most positive aspect of habit/ritual, in my view, is that it’s a step on the way to “having a practice.” I’ve already done one post on this subject, but I’d like to get into it a little deeper next week. When our daily labor becomes ritual and then an actual practice—like Musashi Miyamoto with the samurai sword—then we have elevated our endeavors to a plane beyond mere ambition or aspiration. More on that next week. But first I must validate myself for continuing the weekly habit of writing these posts—and I must validate you, dear reader, for continuing to read them. Thanks and we’ll see you next week!

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

16 Responses to “Habit”

  1. March 31, 2010 at 2:42 am

    Makes me think of Benjamin Franklin’s virtue chart. Any wonder he accomplished so much? As you point out, it was out of habit. Thanks for this post.

  2. Chris Norris
    March 31, 2010 at 5:43 am

    Great post…Thank You!

  3. Holly
    March 31, 2010 at 7:27 am

    Wise words like this keep me coming back for Writing Wednesdays, a good habit I think!

  4. Kathleen
    March 31, 2010 at 8:23 am

    I will continue to show up every Wednesday as long as you are writing these posts. A habit that is helping me through some very challenging times. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom.

  5. March 31, 2010 at 9:22 am

    It’s nice to see someone describe habits in a positive light. As you mentioned, habits are often referred to as a negative connotation. Met you at Barnes and Nobles several weeks back at Columbus Circle in NY. Your book, The War of Art, is an inspiration and has been helping me get rid of my “lizard brain.” If you didn’t get a chance to see it, here is a video I took of you and Seth Godin speaking at the book signing. http://bit.ly/afpPk2

    • April 6, 2010 at 2:24 pm

      Great video, Natasha! Seth and me … two dudes you do NOT want to meet in a dark alley.

      Thanks!
      SP

  6. March 31, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Thanks for this great post Steven. Creating habits invokes Hebb’s Law: neurons that fire together wire together, and with repeated practice, these neurons become much faster and more efficient at firing, requiring much less energy and less “resting” time between firings. Add paying close attention during the repested practice and long term change is created (Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself.)

  7. March 31, 2010 at 9:55 am

    When asking people to be generous, instead of just being vain, Jesus told people, “when you give, don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.” Which I take to mean: become such a generous person, that when you are generous, you don’t really think about it at all, it is just second-nature — good habits!

    As usual, a very helpful post. Thanks!

  8. P-dawg
    March 31, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Great training reminder, Steven! My ex-Marine Corps dad used to pummel me with the virtues of making good habits. I didn’t really grok what he said until I went to the US Army’s Airborne (parachute) School after I got out of college. That was where habit and commitment met and set up shop in my mind. The hundreds of “parachute landing falls” we practiced on the ground drilled into us ways to land safely. But when it came time for the next step, several leaps off a 32-foot tower (we were attached to a line & cable, of course), I saw many troopers hesitate and even a few refuse to jump. I knew then that I must avoid that possibility when we make real jumps from airplanes.

    So then and there on the ground, I decided that no matter how scary it got – when we were up in the air and the green light came on, the door opened, the wind howled in and the jump master yelled “Go!” – I would dive out the door without hesitation. There would be no discussion, no rationalizing, no panicking. Because I trusted my training and I’d already decided days earlier that I’d bail when the time came, fear and doubt had no chance to derail me. No internal conversation about it. Just “Go!”

    That simple lesson has applied to so many situations in my life and pumped me through the door so many times, I’ve lost count. Habit + Commitment = Go for daylight!

  9. Krista Guerrero
    March 31, 2010 at 11:00 am

    I just wanted to let you know that I finished reading The War of Art yesterday. I heard about it on a marketing CD. It was highly recommended by Joe Polish. I had no idea what it was about but I ordered it because I love to read. It is even better to read stuff that is highly recommended.

    Well, your book is brilliant. I have read Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. I absolutely loved that book. Your book is even better. By identifying resistance as the real enemy I now know what I need to do to fight it. I have gotten up early 2 days this week to fight the battle with resistance to finish a script I am working on. I would like to give a copy to all my family members and then some.

    Thank you for an excellent little book that really packs a punch and changes lives. I love it!!

  10. March 31, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Steve, one of the cable channels is doing a spot on the Wizard of Westwood which jibes perfectly with your ideas on habit.

  11. josh
    March 31, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    i really like this one. and its one of the reasons i think a war of art part 2 should not be written. seeing it in small doses every wednesday is much better

  12. Ken
    March 31, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    From chore to habit to ritual to art.

  13. Ken
    March 31, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    I went back to read the older post you referenced. I have been thinking a lot about the difference between a project and a practice. A project is the novel I’m working on, the practice is writing. Whether the novel is there or not, or the motivation, the practice remains.

    I’ve trained in the martial arts for over twenty years. For most of my time it was a project. A serial, long term project. I was learning a set of techniques to earn a belt, or teaching techniques for my students to do the same. I was practicing for a test or a competition or a demonstration.

    Now, I just practice. I have no ulterior goals. I can’t do a jump spin hook kick anymore. I have no desire to earn another rank, or win another medal. I learn everyday and the art remains with me.

  14. March 31, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Hi Steven,

    I’ve been watching for a while through a feedreader. This article grabs me because I wrote about habits a bit ago. I’m inclined to enjoy the ritual, while still making the ritual conscious. In my view habits get too far below the radar of awareness to continue, in the long term, to be useful. A ritual, even one passed from generation to generation, can develop awareness.

    I love the goose story…

    Peace,

    Steven Smith

    PS I make no habit of reading: I like it too much 😉

  15. April 4, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Steven,

    I just finished reading your book “The War of Art” and I gotta say
    WOW! What an eye opener!

    I dug your story about the “Largo” dream. I think we’re all Largos
    at different times in our lives and we just don’t know it, accept it
    or act on it when those opportunities present themselves.

    This “Habit” post fits in nicely with the ideas in your book where
    you talk about the “Principles of Priority.”

    Thank you for helping me uncover and identify “The Resistance”
    and how to combat it every day.

    Jed