The Greeks have a wonderful word called sophrosuné. It means soundness of mind, discretion, moderation in emotions, thoughts and actions and self-control. That’s a lot for one word! Aristotle made the point that these character traits which the word signifies are not genetically endowed but rather come about by habit and practice. I had occasion to remind two people today that habits generally take anywhere between 30-45 days to form at a minimum. Most habits take longer to form. It takes even longer to become a master at it. It was a bitter pill for those people to swallow 🙂
If we wanted to develop a habit of more self-control in a certain area of life it might take 45 days for the initial habit to form. But that would not mean we have become adept at it. As time progressed the habit becomes easier to maintain provided we stick to it. That’s assuming it takes 45 days to develop in the first place. Our culture looks towards the easy fix but the reality is it often takes much more than a quick fix to live a great life.
As Malcolm Gladwell in his book outliers points out, to develop mastery at something typically takes around 10 years of dedicated practice which must include continually extending oneself. It takes a lot of commitment and work to be adept at something. But the formation of the initial habit is a relatively short term thing and we can see some benefits relatively quickly.
We can develop and become a different person – one more to our liking and aims in life by utilising habit formation as a tool. Half the battle is to see the limitations we place on ourselves. The other half is to do something about it.
For example, our tendency is to think of kindness as something we either have or do not have. Largely we believe it is an innate thing, but kindness is a habit which can be learned and thrives the more we nurture it. Depending upon many factors, kindness may initially even feel out of place for some people. It is difficult to be kind when we are overwhelmed with negativity for example. But if we stick to it the uncomfortableness will ease. If we practice it and extend ourselves in our practice of kindness, then we might become extremely proficient at kindness. So much so that the habit of kindness then becomes a way of life.
A similar process occurs with many things. If we want to have more discipline in life, we start by doing disciplined things via practice. There is a bit of a trap in all this though. Often once we develop a habit we tend to identify it. If we become disciplined, we think of ourselves as a disciplined person. If we develop kindness, then we think we are kind. But, the act of kindness is not who we are, but it is something which we do or more accurately is done. The point being to try to not let ego attach itself to our acts.
There is a tip I would like to leave you with. Try and break the development of a habit down into smaller parts. The smaller the better. A habit of tooth brushing can be broken down into 1 stroke/brush of the teeth. While extreme, it demonstrates that many behavior can be broken down into micro-chunks. Breaking them down into smaller chunks helps us to not be overwhelmed.