Action and habit

by Swimmer963 4 min read2nd Jun 2011106 comments


I remember a poster that hung on the wall of my seventh grade classroom. It went like this:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

It was as a competitive swimmer that these words were the most meaningful to me. Most sports are ultimately about the practice, about repeating an action over and over and over again, so that actions become habits and habits become character. The fleeting thought that I really hate getting up at 5:00 am for swim practice is just that: a fleeting thought. But if I justified it with words, speaking it aloud to my parents or siblings or friends, it became a fact that others knew about me, much realer than just a wispy thought. The action of forgetting-on-purpose to set my alarm, or faking sick, was a logical next step. And one missed practice might not be huge, in the long run, but it led easily to a habit of missing practice, say, once a week. A year of this, and I would start to think of myself as the kind of person who missed practice once a week, because after all, isn’t it silly of anyone to expect a twelve-year-old to get up at 5:00 three times a week? And that attitude could very easily have led, over a couple of years, to quitting the team. 

As a matter of fact, none of this happened. As a child I had a large measure of Conscientiousness, and putting long-term goals, like getting best times and earning my coach’s approval, ahead of short-term goals like sleeping another three hours, came to me without too much difficulty. The cycle went the other way. My habitual response to the brief temptation to sleep in, namely screw sleep, this is how you’re going to get faster, my verbal statements to just about everyone that I loved swimming, and the action of getting up three times a week and trekking to the pool after school another three times all reinforced the habit of working hard...which, over the five or so years that I competed, did become a fairly permanent character trait that generalized to things like school and work.

Of course, the quote doesn’t only apply to hard work. It applies to being generous or to being thrifty, to kindness or anger. A thought that happens once leaves a small trail. If it happens a thousand times, it leaves a deep trench. As positive (I can do anything I set my mind to!) or negative (I always fail, no matter how hard I try) thoughts become associated with given situations, they lend those situations their emotional colour. Swim practice, or school or work, becomes either positive or negative.

Actions and Habits

A lot of what I’ve read on LessWrong about habits is in the context of breaking them. And yes, in some ways habits can act as a cognitive bias, a way of filtering the world that causes us to miss important opportunities, and habits are just as likely to be "bad" as to be good. (Maybe more likely.) But habits are also a powerful tool to get stuff done. As most of us know, an intention to do something doesn't necessarily translate to doing it. However, according to this article1, the strength of habit predicts how much students exercise, which their intention to exercise often to fails to predict.

Habits are routinized behaviors that have been frequently paired with stable environmental contexts and, as a result of this pairing, are automatically rather than intentionally set in motion… Habit theory postulates that the intention–exercise relationship is a function of habit strength with a stronger intention–exercise relationship at lower levels of habit strength.

Imagine the advantages of automatically setting aside an hour a day to exercise! Not only will you experience the health benefits, but if it’s an automatic rather than an intentional behavior, you’ll tend to exercise whether or not you feel motivated on given day, even under stress, even when you're tired and drained after a bad day.2 And yes, this is a habit I’ve (re)constructed in myself after a post-swim-team year of barely exercising at all. Having been active as a child and teenager, it was probably easier for me to build it into a habit than it would have been for a lifelong couch potato, but it would still be possible for them. Likewise, as far as I can tell from anecdotal evidence, it’s much easier to stick to a long-term habit of healthy eating than to a temporary diet.

How can you turn something into a habit, as opposed to a series of intentional actions? This post suggests planning for the long-term rather than the short term. “If I’m really good with my diet this month, I’ll lose weight and then I can start eating whatever I like again” is not a good long term motivational thought. Even in the short term I’ve found that I resent the things I force myself to do with this excuse, whereas I don’t resent my habitual behaviors like “exercise every day” and “never buy fast food or unhealthy snacks.”

Habits and Character

The habit of exercising doesn’t necessarily influence other behaviors, but if maintained for long enough, it segues into the character trait of being a health-conscious person with good self-control. If I have evidence to present to myself that I have healthy habits (“just look, I swam for an hour three to five times a week for a whole year, I must be the kind of person who’s fit”) then it becomes easier to start new “good” habits, like healthy eating. I can correct my fleeting thoughts of how tempting the free baked goods are, tell myself “of course you have enough self-control not to eat those cookies, you’re the kind of person who has healthy habits.” At this point the motivational quote becomes circular; Habits and Character affect Thoughts, which affect Words and Actions. This isn’t a logical paradox if it works, and it seems to work well for me. The more I exercise in a given month, the easier it is to have self-restraint in other areas.

And even the fact that I have good self-control is, I think, partly based on believing it about myself (“I got up at 5 am for swim practice three times a week for five years, I must have good self-control!) This seems to relate to the finding that willpower depletion depends on whether you believe your willpower will be depleted.3


Anyone can develop any “character trait.” The requirement is simply enough years of thoughts becoming words becoming actions becoming habit. If you believe that something will get easier to maintain over time, it will. Not in the sense of time and resources­; to get the continuing benefits of an hour’s daily exercise, you have to pay the opportunity cost of that hour a day, no matter how many years you’ve been doing it for; but in the sense of willpower and motivation. Your actions and habits will eventually change the person you believe yourself to be, which will affect just about everything else. I don’t have any direct evidence that this process works if begun in adulthood, but intuitively it seems that it might work better, since adults are almost always intrinsically motivated in what they do, whereas children often do whatever activities their parents choose, whether or not it’s something they’re motivated to do.


1. De Bruijn, G. J. , Rhodes, R. E. Exploring exercise behavior, intention and habit strength relationships. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2011: 21: 482–491.

2. Schwabe, L., & Wolf, O. T. (2011). Stress-induced modulation of instrumental behavior: From goal-directed to habitual control of action. Behavioural Brain Research, 219(2), 321-328. 

3. Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion-is it all in your head? implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1686-1693. Link provided by Dr_Manhatten