President Obama and Cultivating Habits of the Heart

A recent Vanity Fair interview with President Obama highlighted how his daily habits produce a routine for the ordinary aspects of his life, freeing him to focus on the important decisions he faces. Maria Popova connects the President’s strategy to psychologist and philosopher William James, in an article posted at The Atlantic:

In fact, the same tenets Obama applies to the architecture of his daily life are those . . . William James wrote about in 1887, when he penned Habit (public library; public domain) — a short treatise on how our behavioral patterns shape who we are and what we often refer to as character and personality.

Popova reviews excerpts from James’s publication, including these three tips for solidifying new habits:

  1. The acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce [sic] the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.
  2. Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right … It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.
  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. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.

Discipline like this sounds a bit unreasonable in our day. Habits feel restrictive. Passionate determination for developing character isn’t nearly as important or common as developing some aspect of physical beauty. We shy away from lofty goals like these, feeling the pinch to our freedom in the short term while disdaining the benefit that’s to come over the long haul.

The trouble is that we see discipline as the enemy. On the contrary, when used properly with pure motives, habits are the means by which God develops Christ-likeness in us. And that’s where freedom can be found.

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