Inertia and Entropy in our Habits

Vincent Deary’s book (and first of a planned trilogy) How We Are deals with the subject of changing our habits. The central thread is that we are creatures of daily habit, practitioners of routines that really change largely upon a disruption from outside ourselves. Oftentimes, in coming to the decision to become a better person—or the realization that we need to change an unhealthy routine—we look for a dramatic moment to usher in a new age in our lives. Like the usual narratives in movies and books, we must respond to outside pressures; but unlike the consumable narratives, some grand ritual moment will not signal a time to choose new habits to take on.

In the second section of the book, Deary opens the passage “Defining Moments” with a quotation from philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves:

“There is nothing special at the time about a birth that will turn out to have been a speciation event. Similarly, one should be suspicious of the demand that there be an event—an SFA (self-forming act)—that has some special, intrinsic, local feature that sets it apart from its nearest kin and explains its capacity to found something important” (128).

Particularly, Dennett is describing biological process of species change, but Deary uses this quotation to illuminate the psychological process of change and expands from there: “Don’t expect the beginning to feel real. We are all going to be playing house for a while, before we establish the ethos of our present time and place” (164).

In other words, it does not matter if you are committing to losing weight with the New Year or planning to learn a new language next Tuesday, the day you start your change is not the deciding factor in the change’s efficacy. Our success comes from the commitment to practice the changed act until it becomes routine—and this applies to something as a hack to remember new names and something as large as the discipline to get a handle on debt. Every moment, every day, of our lives is an opportunity to better live life.

This, too, is key: unlike a movie montage, the ungainly first steps will not be accompanied by a swelling of an orchestral score or great fanfare—no one is applauding the morning of your first jog, breathless at the top of the street’s hill. Change is awkward-feeling, at times embarrassing, and involving.

That resistance can be a blessing, though. We can change for the worse if not mindful of the habits we develop. If we might call the difficulty of change a psychological inertia, then we might call the acquisition of bad habits a psychological entropy. We face two challenges, then, in living better lives—inertia fighting a desired change and entropy inviting an undesirable one.

Aristotle and the Buddha, alike, spoke of habit, good or bad, and its connection to who we are: this is ancient wisdom, but worth repeating as we each make ourselves in the modern world. Drawing upon both, Deary closes with the passage: “We will become what we repeatedly do. So, let’s be careful what we start” (165).

Deary, Vincent. How We Are. 1st ed., New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Dennett, Daniel C. Freedom Evolves. 1st ed., New York, Penguin, 2004.

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