Ultimately, habits make our destinies, but we can make our habits. What I mean by that is that our day to day lives are saturated with accumulated patterns of behavior, from the way we brush our teeth to the way we evaluate an argument, from the way we write our name to the way we present ourselves to others, from the way we do our job to how we interact with our children, our friends, our enemies and everyone else we meet. We start accumulating habits from the very beginning of our lives. Babies very quickly learn that crying will get them attention, and when they are hungry or tired or uncomfortable or in pain, they cry, and lo and behold someone comes along to take care of things for them. Crying is their habit tool for getting what they need. From there on out, the habits multiply and proliferate so that by the time we are young adults, most of our behaviors are habit bound. There is a plus and a minus side to this extensive reliance on habits. The plus side is that habits create familiar and easy routines for the everyday things. They provide us with control over our lives. They enable us to move on to master ever more complex and intricate tasks and projects in our lives. Without the capacity for forming habits, we could never get beyond the most rudimentary tasks. If we had to expend the same effort a young child does buttoning his or her shirt for the first time, we would never get past getting dressed in our lives. The minus side is that habits lessen our awareness of aspects of our behavior; they become relatively automatic, and we are thereby less mindful of their presence. This is why “bad” habits are so notoriously difficult to change. Once we are habituated to some behavior, it starts to feel “normal” to us, like this is the way it should be for us.
Although habits are powerful whether they are good or bad habits, it is doubtful that we could have survived as we have as a species without habits. Other animals are heavily endowed with instincts, and they manifest great expertise very quickly. Spiders don’t need any training to weave their intricate webs. There are no need for web spinning schools. The upshot of this relatively instantaneous, hard-wired expertise is special- ization. No spider after six months of spinning webs says, I think I’ll change the design and make a square web or a roomier web or a prettier web or maybe I won’t make any more webs. They start and end with webs and there’s nothing else. By contrast babies start with no skills and no abilities. They play with pails on the beach, fill them with sand and make sand castles, and end up creating the Parthenon or the Guggenheim museum. That’s the difference between habit and instinct.