Habit as a Gravitational Force

American philosopher, psychologist, and physician William James is considered one of the most influential people on American psychology. In 1887, he published Habit, which is a fascinating historical perspective on the science of habits. Among his many observations, there was one that stood out to me that undoubtedly has its impact on social injustices and interpersonal relationships.

If the period between twenty and thirty is the critical one in the formation of intellectual and professional habits, the period below twenty is more important still for the fixing of personal habits, properly so called, such as vocalization and pronunciation, gesture, motion, and address. Hardly ever is a language learned after twenty spoken without a foreign accent; hardly ever can a youth transferred to the society of his betters unlearn the nasality and other vices of speech bred in him by the associations of his growing years. Hardly ever, indeed, no matter how much money there be in his pocket, can he even learn to dress like a gentleman-born. The merchants offer their wares as eagerly to him as to the veriest swell, 'but he simply cannot buy the right things. An invisible law, as strong as gravitation, keeps him within his orbit, arrayed this year as he was the last; and how his better-bred acquaintances contrive to get the things they wear will be for him a mystery till his dying day.

Today's science has proven that our brains yearn for habits as a means to conserve cognitive energy. From the things we do to the things we believe, our minds create habits and beliefs that cannot easily be untaught. In fact, most psychologists will say that habits cannot be unlearned, but only replaced.

To see changes in social injustices around the world or with existing interpersonal relationships, a study on the habitual thoughts and actions of all parties may be key to finding a solution. As James says, habits are a gravitational force that keep us within our own orbit. To escape such forces usually requires proper motivation, ability, and patience through well planned actions.

May you learn to see the same people each day, newly.


In the book, The Carolina Way: Leadership Lessons from a Life in Coaching, hall of fame coach, Dean Smith discusses the importance of rituals. For him and his team, rituals played a vital role in promoting teamwork and skill development. However, there was one season where he noted one ritual in particular that seemed to be having a negative impact.

"...for many years we ended the practice before a game with the ritual of putting six players at one end of the court and six at the other end. Before they could leave practice, each of the six players at both ends had to make two consecutive free throws, If five made them and the sixth missed, all had to start over. During the 1978 season I stopped the drill after we determined it was producing negative results. Because players didn't want to be responsible for keeping their teammates on the court long after practice had ended, they tried too hard to make their shots so their teammates could go home. In the process they put too much pressure on themselves. For some of them it carried over to the games. We had unintentionally planted a seed that wasn't productive because the players thought too much about the consequences of missing...

We changed and at every practice had each player shoot fifty foul shots, all of which were recorded by our managers. The shots were taken at different intervals during practice. That was more effective. Our North Carolina players made most of their clutch foul shots, that much I know. They concentrated on their personal ritual, not on the consequences of making or missing."

Coach Smith also spoke of how he encouraged each player to establish their own routine when they were at the foul line. It didn't matter what their routine was, but what was important is that each player went through his same motions every time they took a free throw, whether in practice or during a game.

"Their minds would be on the ritual, not the outcome. It helped relieve the pressure of the moment."

May you find and evaluate the proper rituals in your life that promote good habits and social connectedness. May the thought of any outcome be lost in your mind during critical moments and trust your practice will lead to success.

Theology's Relevance

N.T. Wright opens a chapter in his book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters with the following story.

"I once had a student, studying theology, who spent his whole summer vacation working in a sub-Saharan African country. When he came back, the head of the college asked him what he wanted to do when he graduated. He replied that he was hoping to work in international development, bring help and wisdom to the poorest parts of the globe. The head of the college at once asked him why, in that case, he was studying theology rather than politics and/or economics.

The student didn't miss a beat. 'Because theology is much more relevant,' he replied."

May you find meaning and purpose in your work that is of something greater.