William James – “Habit” (From The Principles of Psychology)
James argues that a very large part of our lives involves our habits and points to instinct as the primary source of habit in wild animals and acts of reason as the primary source of habit in domesticated animals and man. James first draws a distinction between these different types of habit and then gives several maxims for dealing with our own habits. We, being composed of organic material that possess some plasticity, are not subject in a deterministic sense to the immutable laws of nature as elementary particles of matter are. Instead, our habits are more variable than those of elementary particles--for us, instincts vary from one individual of a kind to another. Our structure is weak enough to yield to an influence but not all at once, and this plasticity allows for change in habit which may involve either external or internal. James argues that the point of education then is to make our nervous system our ally by making automatic and habitual as many useful actions as we can.
For this, he gives us four maxims:
(1) Launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible in the acquisition of a new habit or the leaving off of an old one.
(2) Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life.
(3) Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain.
(4) Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.
The first three deal with building new habits and breaking old ones by not allowing exceptions. Because habits are reinforced in the brain by their continued execution, allowing exceptions either hinders the process of building new habits or reinforces bad ones. The fourth maxim simply deals with doing things which one finds uncomfortable or undesirable so that when the time comes that such action is necessary, one will act out of habit rather than hesitate.