Back in my teaching days, one of the curriculum requirements was patriotic songs. I spent some time telling the stories of familiar patriotic music, as well as tales of the composers who wrote them and the musicians who made them famous.
My younger students always struggled when we talked about the United States of America.
When I asked what country we lived in, they would immediately shout out the name of our city.
“No,” I’d respond, “that’s our city. What country do we live in?”
“Texas!” they’d shout.
Once again, I’d have to redirect.
Finally they had the right answer, but they struggled with understanding that Garland was a city inside Texas, which was a state in the United States of America, which was a country existing as part of the North American continent, which was a land mass on planet Earth. And so on.
I remember drawing a picture on the board to try and help them conceive the idea. Still, their little minds weren’t quite ready yet.
The Problem with Will Power
Recently, I read the book Soul Keeping by John Ortberg. He describes in detail his late friend Dallas Willard’s diagram for the soul, which reminded me of the whole city in a state in a nation drawing I used to sketch on the chalkboard in my classroom.
In the picture he draws of four concentric circles, the will is in the center. Next comes the the mind, then the body, and finally the soul.
Put simply, the soul is like our planet. It contains all the other parts of us, body, mind and will.
I found it interesting that the will is the smallest component of all.
We tend to think, optimists that we are, that we can accomplish great things through the power of our wills.
We can wake up, thank God for a brand new day, and decide today is the day we are going to make big changes. Today we are going to do things differently.
- Today I’ll avoid sugar.
- Today I’ll start that diet or exercise program.
- Today I’ll stay calm and refuse to yell at my kids.
- Today I’ll make my bed.
- Today I’ll be more organized.
Will power is the stuff New Years resolutions are made of.
Why, then, does our will power seem so weak? Why does it fail us so often?
Well, perhaps because it’s the smallest part of who we are.
As Ortberg explains, willpower is great for “making simple and large commitments like getting married, or deciding to move someplace. . . but it is very bad at trying to override habits and patterns and attitudes that are deeply rooted in us. If you try to improve your soul by willpower, you will exhaust yourself and everyone around you.”
As someone who is fascinated with the science of habits, I couldn’t help but be intrigued and completely drawn in by that statement.
Once again, it goes back to the idea of training vs. trying.
I can decide in my will that I want something. I can want it with all my might. I can even try really hard to accomplish it. But without the training — i.e. the everyday habits, the process necessary to achieve the desired goal — I’m dead in the water.
As Ortberg perfectly states, “Habits eat willpower for breakfast.”
The Power of Habits
I wasn’t always a believer, but I am now.
I’ve seen the power habits have over my own life. . . both good and bad. And it’s scary sometimes. It’s unsettling to realize how much of our life is determined by habits, when you really stop to think about it.
They say it takes 21 days to turn something into a habit, and I’m not sure if the timing is exact. But what I do know is I can develop a bad habit much quicker than that.
And I’ ve also found that the only way to truly break a bad habit is to replace it with a good one.
For instance, I’ve replaced my bad habit of repeatedly hitting the snooze button with the habit of getting out of bed, walking across the room to where my phone alarm is going off, snoozing once only, and then — grudgingly — getting out of bed for good.
I’ve enacted this pattern enough now that it’s become habit. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m thrilled about it when the alarm goes off each morning. But my body has gotten used to it, and it goes through the motions even though everything in my willpower says, “go back to bed.”
The way to change your life, then, is to change your habits.
It’s attributed to Aristotle, the saying “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit.”
It’s absolutely true.
Here’s another example.
I’m a professional musician. I’ve been accompanying choirs and soloists on the piano since I was 15 years old.
I’m really good at sight -reading, which is sitting down and playing a piece of music cold, without ever having looked at it. Sure, I’ll make some mistakes, especially depending on how difficult the music is, but I can muddle through better than most people can on a first read-through.
You could attribute this to my superior musicianship (wink, wink), but I know plenty of pianists who are better musicians than I am and can’t sightread as well.
So I don’t chalk it up to innate talent. Instead, I’ve learned that my sight-reading skill is linked to my habits.
When I play new music, I have certain habits that make quick reading easier.
- I don’t just read notes, I read chords.
- I anticipate what’s coming based on over 30 years of reading and playing music.
- I make lots of educated guesses.
- When it comes to octaves and scales and familiar patterns, I rely on my fingers and muscle memory to do the work for me, rather than having to think through each individual note.
- I also know — on a first reading — which notes and chords are more difficult and what to leave out in order to avoid playing a wrong note.
None of these tactics are things I am actively deciding to do. All of them are habits, which, when combined, make me pretty darn good at sight-reading a piece of music.
Sometimes I even surprise myself.
I played for a high school musical recently and some of the music was difficult. I hadn’t gotten in as much practice time as I wanted, and yet during rehearsals one night, as I was frazzled and staring at the notes trying to make sense of them, my hands kept moving. And they were hitting more right notes than wrong ones.
My hands knew what to do, even when my brain was still trying to figure things out.
It was a little creepy. As though I was being possessed. But I realized eventually what it was: habits. After playing that particular style of music so many times, my hands automatically knew where to go, even though my brain was struggling to keep up.
The moral to the story?
If you want to change your life, you’re gonna have to change your habits.
There are plenty of resources out there to help you make the most of your habits. Here are some of my favorites.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy
I’d love to hear more about how you make your habits work for you. Will you share in the comments section? Or what about breaking bad habits? What habits have you successfully gotten rid of and how did you do it? I could really use help in this area!
Share your success secrets with the rest of us, won’t you?