I recently turned thirty, the age by which, according to William James, “the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” But he wrote that in 1890, before mobile devices and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and Lana Del Rey and the fragmentation of the self, and I’m happy to report that my character is as soft as unhandled Play-Doh. For the past year I’ve slept mostly in well-worn twin beds generously provided by writing colonies, my life a new kind of nomadism made possible by America’s patrons of the arts. Every morning I get up at seven, or seven thirty, or eight, or eleven, and record my dreams, or forget them, then make my bed, or not, after which I proceed immediately to take a shower, or start the coffee, or eat breakfast, or go for a walk, then sit down at my desk to begin the day’s work, or write e-mails, or stare out the window, or do absolutely anything else. I usually end my day by reading a book, or talking on the phone, or watching basketball highlights on ESPN.com, or wondering why I keep the channel on Jimmy Fallon when every instance of empty enthusiasm makes me loathe him a little more.
William James again: “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.” This very hour.
Habits are for squares, is what I’ve always felt. Emerson, foolish consistency, hobgoblins, et cetera. And yet I’ve long understood also that this is in large part a semiconscious self-justification for a life lived without a set of habits commensurate to my ambitions. I get stuff done, but never as much as I’ve planned and rarely as well as I’ve hoped. The disappointment I feel in the wake of such failure often spurs me to reconsider my attitude toward habits and sometimes even to commit to certain important-seeming ones, occasionally for as long as two or three days.
Even if your life is more structured than mine, the chances of your being completely satisfied with your daily routine are slim at best—something Charles Duhigg, author of a new book with the wonderfully inclusive subtitle “Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It,” clearly understands. We don’t like what we do, do we, never quite. The book’s title proper is The Power of Habit(a clever mashup of The Power of Now and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), and its purpose is to make us all healthier, happier, and more successful in our personal and business lives.