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Habits are more than routines

Habits are more than routines

There are hundreds of things we do routinely every day. We wake up, check our phones, eat our meals, do our jobs.

More recently, these actions have become a place for self-improvement and life-hacks. These guides tend to show habits as routines that follow a repeated sequence of behaviours, but this account is stripped of much of its historical richness.

Aristotle on habit

Philosophers used to look at habits as a way of thinking who we are, what it means to have faith, and why our daily habits reveal something about the larger world.

Aristotle uses the term hexis (a lasting characteristic, capacity or disposition that one 'owns') and ethos (what triggers the essential principles that help to guide moral and intellectual development.) Later in medieval Christian Europe, Aristotle's hexis was Latinised into habitus.

David Hume on habits

Enlightenment philosopher David Hume thought of habits in broader terms. He considered habit as something that empowers and enables us. He concluded that habit is the 'cement of the universe' that 'all operations of the mind depend on.'

He believed that any skill we use to change an experience into something useful is built from habits, such as language, music, relationships. Habits are then essential instruments that guide us to navigate the world.

What 'behaviorism' teaches us about ourselves

Today's self-help books rely on 20th-century behavioural psychologists such as BF Skinner, Clark Hull, John B Watson and Ivan Pavlov. These thinkers prioritise observable, stimulus-response reactions over inner feelings or thoughts.

Behaviourists believed people were conditioned to respond automatically to certain cues, which caused repeated actions. However, in light of contemporary neuroscience, the behaviourist image of habit has changed. For example, the brain is malleable and allows habits to write themselves in our neural wiring over time.

Thomas Aquinas on habits

The theologian Thomas Aquinas saw habit as a significant component of spiritual life. In his Summa Theologica (1265-1274), habitus meant rational choice that leads the true believer to the sense of faithful freedom and consuetudo involved habits that inhibit this freedom: the irreligious, daily routines that don't actively engage with faith.

Consuetudo is where we get the terms 'custom' and 'costume' from. It suggests that habit extended beyond individuals.

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