The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit is a best-selling book which explains how habits are formed and how you can develop good habits. According to the book, habits have three components (1) a cue (2) a routine and (3) a reward. For example, a cue could be the time 3 pm, the routine would be to go and find something sweet to eat, and the reward would be the joy. If you want to change the habit, you have to realize these components. After that, you can change by keeping the same cue and reward, but by changing the routine. Thus instead of downing chocolates, you can go for a walk. (Read a detailed review of the book or listen to a podcast with the author)

When I read the book, it felt as if I had seen this elsewhere, with more depth. So I went back to Patanjali’s Yogasutras with commentary by Swami Vivekananda.

First, Swamiji talks about how habits are formed. Imagine a lake. Each action we take is like a pulsation over the lake. Once the pulsation dies out, what remains are the impressions of those pulsations. When a large number of these impressions are left on the mind, it becomes a habit and it becomes our nature. If some good impressions remain, then we become good and if some wicked impressions remain, we become wicked.

Swami then talks about how to change bad habits. While Duhigg talks about replacing the routine with a different one, Yogasutras talks about replacing a bad habit with a counter habit. The base habits which are deeply ingrained in our mind automatically kick in every situation. The only way to change the base impressions on the mind is by doing good things, thinking holy thoughts and various other yoga practices. These help overwrite the base impressions with new ones, thus transforming you at a deeper level.

This transformation does not happen over night; it requires long continued practice. For example, when you start skiing, you will fall down a lot. Do you give up because others are making fun of you or do you have enough internal power to continue? Do the opinion of others control you or do you have mastery over yourself? Do you have enough vairagyam?

The drawback of Duhigg’s method is that once the cue happens, it can be strong enough to over power the mind. If the waves are strong, then you will not even realize you have carried out the routine; It might hit as a regret later. Thus you need to intercept the waves even before they become a swell. That requires transformation at a subtle level, that the practices mentioned in the Yogasutras can help.