The Force of Habit
As we stock our arsenal with pencils and textbooks for the coming school year, another weapon merits special attention: habits. Habits are a double-edged sword that can slay dragons—or kill us.
I suspect that I am not alone when “habit” recalls mere mundanities like nail-biting or brushing one’s teeth. However, my freshman year of college restored the word’s true meaning in my mind. My dorm at Benedictine College sat next to a towering abbey populated with real monks who gathered several times a day to pray.
After the annual fire drill roused me early enough one morning, I began to join them several times a week for 6 am morning prayer.
The psalms, interspersed with silence, impressed me with their meaning and beauty. Attending morning prayer oriented my day toward God. Sadly, during the spring semester, my bedtime was later, and I eventually stopped going because my body demanded sufficient sleep. This beautiful, grace-giving, hard-won habit was lost.
Awakened to the power of habit, I noticed how my habits affected each other, my life, and my happiness. Good habits required dedicated effort to establish, while mediocre habits filled in where I failed to make that effort. In the classroom, I learned that virtue is a habit of doing a specific morally good action, and I realized my habits would affect my eternal fate.
Many homeschooled students and their parents make growth in virtue their foremost priority. Virtues such as prudence and perseverance are necessary for learning, and a successful student often relies on many other habits as well.
Unlike private or public school students, who show up and receive directions, homeschooled students must often determine and establish their habits while parents provide oversight and advice. Developing good habits demonstrates self-discipline and maturity. So, what are you waiting for?
Before strategizing, a good general will reconnoiter the terrain, his resources, his opponent, his army and anything else remotely relevant. He will review his objectives. When the unexpected occurs, he will be more capable of adjusting his plans to a new situation. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, your goals and ideals, and any boundaries that your parents have articulated or advised.
Don’t be afraid to investigate the roots of any bad habits or the ultimate aim of good habits, as your discoveries will help you develop more effective strategies. Consider areas in which you want to improve, and ask your parents for their ideas. Maybe you already have a few habits in mind.
Plan for Success
Form a realistic plan to implement desired habits or eradicate undesired ones. For example, if you cannot help checking your phone every ten minutes, consider gradually waiting fifteen minutes between times, then twenty minutes, then thirty, etc., instead of quitting outright. Remember, a day only has twenty-four hours, so don’t over schedule your day.
While you shouldn’t attempt the impossible, because you will only frustrate and discourage yourself, dare to push beyond your comfort zone.
Breaking up larger goals and projects into smaller steps is often the best method. Also, you will make more progress if you limit your focus to several habits instead of juggling a million at once.
Get a Partner
This oft-repeated advice for those beginning a diet or exercise program works well for other habits. My aunt and I started an exercise program this summer, and both of us made more progress than we would have by ourselves. I benefited from her experience, and she drew from my enthusiasm. Perhaps a parent, sibling or even an aunt can be your “accountability partner.”
The person should be someone whom you respect, whom you don’t want to disappoint, and whom understands your goal. Consider enlisting your guardian angel and patron saints as well.
Ready for Action!
Once you have decided what you should do and have established a game plan, act on it. You must start somewhere, and if you are ready, why not now? Maybe you regret that you did not start sooner. However, continuing to wait will not recover lost time, but instead only squander what remains.
Eventually, the enthusiasm wears off, but you must keep going to reach your destination. Use chocolate if necessary, or offer your discomfort for the souls in Purgatory, a struggling sibling, or a wayward friend. Pray for the grace to do what is right. God may have other plans; just try your best and rely on His help.
Avoid obstacles if possible. Sometimes, you cannot avoid them, and you will mess up. In that case, keep trying and thank God for this opportunity to exercise humility. Nobody is perfect, and you cannot control every circumstance. Don’t worry about that. The worst thing that can happen is to quit the pursuit of virtue and sainthood.
A Sample Plan
I’m working on a few habits of my own, and they might provide ideas, examples, and inspiration. The fall semester begins in a few weeks, and I am striving to go to bed around 9 pm so I can regularly attend morning prayer again.
My diet has been rather neglected, and as the first step of improvement, I eat a healthy, energizing breakfast. A friend and I want to pray the rosary daily; we text each other every few days with a “rosary check.”
What habits do you want to form? And what is your advice for doing it? Feel free to share in the comments below!
About Katharine Caughron
Kate Caughron, the oldest of ten lively and adventurous siblings, lives with her family on a small Missouri farm. Besides playing piano, she also revels in reading and writing. Her long-time interest in poetry and especially sonnets has been well nourished by Seton literature courses. A member of the Seton class of 2016 and a National Merit Finalist, she plans to attend Benedictine college in the fall and pursue a fascination with (oddly enough) mathematics.