While considerations on theory and practice of “How to abandon a habit?” are quite common for many people, the question of “Why should I abandon a habit?” in the first place, is often not given its due attention.
At first, that question might seem unimportant. If one should consider for example the benefits of quitting smoking, at least one such benefit is self-evident – the eventual improved health status of the smoker. This is normally the case of habits perceived as negative and we usually do not need much reflection to get convinced about them. It is not the case, however, when it comes to positive or neutral habits. Why should we bother to abandon the first and not try to cultivate them instead? Why should we take the effort to get rid of the latter instead of live on with them? Do we actually need to look for answers to those questions at all? I believe we do. For whatever choice we make in our lives, whether conscious or unconscious, there is always an underlying motive to it. The more we act out of conscious motivation, the more focused and consistent we seem to be in our efforts to achieve our goals. Thus having a clear motive in mind might be crucial for our determination to deal with a habit.
Above questions might of course get multiple answers and many of those answers would often be relevant only in the case of a particular habit pattern. There seems to be, however, at least one fundamental reason why a person who strives for self-improvement should be willing to get rid of most if not all of his habits. Before we get to it, let us first consider a definition of the term “habit”.
In the present context, a habit denotes a pattern of behavior or mental attitude which manifests automatically. While some habits seem to be repeated pattern of “actions”, on fundamental level they are all “reactions”. In other words they are a repeated way of responding to situations or conditions perceived to be the same as ones we have experienced in the past.
Now, consider the wording “perceived to be the same” used above (and implying subjective quality) as opposed to “being the same” (that would denote actual sameness). For the nature of reality and all our experience is that there can never be a moment that is exactly the same in its every aspect to a moment in the past. A habitual reaction implicitly assumes “sameness” of situation which is never there. The differences, however minor they might be, already suggest how a habitual pattern as a way of responding is fundamentally erroneous. Firstly, a course of action that was appropriate on previous occasion might not be appropriate at all or at least not most appropriate because of the slightly different details in the overall situation of today. Moreover, the relationship is bi-directional and self-perpetuating – on one hand we act in the same manner because we perceive seemingly same situations and on the other hand the repeated pattern of behavior itself seems to further convince us that situations are same indeed. When we find ourselves for the first time in particular conditions, we are normally more alert and aware in our reaction. Over time we develop familiarity with those seemingly familiar conditions. We relax and act out automatically losing the sharpness of awareness that was present in the first encounter.
In summary, habits prevent us from experiencing situations as new, fresh and unique what they inherently are. Even if it was not the case and situations were to be fundamentally the same, acting out of a habit would still be lacking in one particular sense – by responding in a repeated manner, we miss to be creative. We lose the chance to try different ways, different approaches, and different solutions. We miss the challenging and fresh quality of our own subjective experience of reality. To be free from habits means to allow for seeing the big picture in a more complete manner. For each next time you are confronted with a situation and you do not have a prefabricated response, you are left with only one option – to go through it as first-time experience.