More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle famously stated, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” We can say the same thing about success. Success is not an act, but a habit.
In the late 19th Century American psychologist William James had more to say along the same lines in his booklet entitled “Habit”:
“When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits. In wild animals, the usual round of daily behavior seems a necessity implanted at birth; in animals domesticated, and especially in man, it seems, to a great extent, to be the result of education. The habits to which there is an innate tendency are called instincts; some of those due to education would by most persons be called acts of reason. It thus appears that habit covers a very large part of life….”
In 2012 “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” was first published by Charles Duhigg (Random House) and rapidly became a New York Times best seller. It is highly readable and highly recommended.
Researchers in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered that habits reside in a primitive portion of the brain called the basal ganglia. A person can suffer serious brain injury, but as long as the basal ganglia are intact, he can continue to perform many routines of life through habits. Duhigg wrote (pg. 17):
“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. … An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.”
The Power of Habit – A Three-Step Loop
Scientists have discovered, and Duhigg reports (pg. 19), that the formation and repetition of habits form a three-step loop. “First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”
However, once a habit forms, it is hard to change. It appears that habits never get erased but reside in the memory (basal ganglia) permanently. That is why you can get on a bike at age 50 and ride almost as well as you did when you were 10.
So this whole business of habit is very important from a success standpoint. If you are not as successful as you want to be now, it is likely because your current habits are not generating the desired rewards. And if you want to be more successful in life, you need to create new, more productive habits to replace the old ones. The more you structure your life as a series of success-driving routines, the more successful you will be overall.
Now granted some success comes from individual “aha” moments, breakthroughs or one-time achievements. But in general achieving greater success in life is a lot like achieving more physical fitness. You need to establish and practice positive routines – habits.