So, you’re behind on your studies. You can’t seem to find the time to sit behind the books, and when you do finally manage to squeeze in some time in between all the distractions of sleep, texting, chatting and your social obligations, what happens? You fall asleep after 15, 20 minutes, or you pick up the phone again, or you get lost in thought. If you’re working towards any goal, chances are you’ve stumbled into this more times than you can possibly count.
But, what’s wrong? Its studies, its work. It’s the RIGHT thing to do. How is the right thing to do so effortful? It’s the right compass direction of life. It should be pleasant, at least as pleasant as looking at pictures on Instagram. Are we just wired for bad decisions? Are we programmed to procrastinate? Are we just another line in the natural and never-ending war between the student and his book?
Well, good news. Someone figured this out. 3000 years ago. And his name was Aristotle.
Born in Greece, Aristotle was obsessed with finding out life’s biggest questions: why are we here? Is there a supreme being? One of them included the question: How can we live the “Good Life?”, and that’s the subject of his book: Ethics. Even though limited by the scientific advancements of his time, his logical deductions are still shockingly relevant to living today. But first, let’s track back to where Aristotle started from: how do we get “good” in the first place.
JUST DO IT… AGAIN!
Virtues are not natural, according to Aristotle. Natural things cannot be reasoned out of. For example, if I drop a ball, I cannot reason it out of the law of gravity. It cannot help but fall. But people can reason themselves out of doing good, and into it. Therefore it’s not a given. You don’t learn to walk and run, before you manifest arms and legs. The facilities to walk and run are already there, before the knowledge of walking and running. (this is better justifiable with the brain science we know now but he had the general idea.)
And virtue comes by doing. If a man has knowledge that murder is bad, but kills anyway, he is not a virtuous man. So good comes by doing, not mere knowledge of the good.
And doing, comes by what Aristotle calls “habituation”. It’s basically this:
Take two people, one who grew up not stealing and knowing virtues, and another who knows those same virtues but is a compulsive thief. Now put them both in a room with 10 cedis on a table? Who is more likely to do the right thing to not steal?
The one who has been habituated against stealing, is less likely to give in to his impulses, than the one who hasn’t, even though he knows its bad, his will is weak, because of his habits.
In short: habit constrains virtue.
THE ‘I CAN STOP WHEN I WANT’ MYTH
Okay, myth is too strong a word. More like misguided notion. You CAN stop bad habits with enough conviction, but without consistency, you are less likely to have the will to stop when you need to, or the will to continue the good habit when you start. Let me cap this off by a quote by a jogging baboon in one of my favourite cartoons: Bojack Horseman(see it, its pretty good):
“It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it gets easier.”
But, how do I “habituate”, 500-page textbooks with content as dry as the paper its printed on? I can barely stay awake for 30 minutes.
Well, well… Aristotle presents us a brilliant solution, which is ironically, also the place he went wrong. But hold on for that final twist.
THE SPIRIT IS WILLING, BUT THE FLESH IS A 9-YEAR-OLD
Aristotle posits that three main motivations are responsible for guiding us towards choice or inaction: the honourable, the expedient, the pleasant. On the other end: the dishonourable, the hurtful, and the painful. And the chief among what motivates choice is Pleasure, because the end result of being honourable and expedient is because there’s some good feeling the person gets from acting noble or serving his convenience.
Now, OUR bodies know no good or bad virtues. Its just ordered towards what is pleasurable. Your mind may know these social obligations, but your flesh doesn’t. To your body, it’s a disposable appliance artificially hooked up to the machine.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Come on, rational adults are more complex than that. We can make reasoned decisions and direct our bodies accordingly”. That’s right, and Aristotle calls this Self-Mastery: basically discipline.
But the point is, at the point of procrastinating or dismissing obligations for texting or sleep, chances are that conviction, discipline and what not have already failed to move you. You’re in a pre “Self-Mastery” state. Basically a stubborn 9-year-old.
In that state, if the pleasure you are feeling from the bad activity, is more than that from the activity you know you should rather be doing, it doesn’t matter what rationality says. That’s what you’ll do.
Therefore, good habits must be just as pleasurable to encourage doing, and in the long term, habituation. And a person is perfected in Self-mastery when he not only abstains from basic pleasures, but is glad to do so.
FORBEARANCE OR FOR WORSE
So I agree with Aristotle. He’s mostly spot on, except for one thing. He forgets about Sacrifice.
Clinical psychologist; Jordan Peterson, explains it best in this way: Sacrifice is a contract with the future, that whatever suffering we are enduring today, will mostly likely be paid back in the future. In that state of sacrifice, humans can endure pain, unpleasantness, or worse, a 500-page textbook. Because it’s a forbearance for future reward. And the act need not give any pleasure. It’s a feeling beyond Pain and Pleasure. Its Meaning. That the act has value beyond the fleeting present: its meaningful. Its no wonder the “latter day students” find it easier to study when the exam is a few days away. Its not because they didn’t want to before. It’s because the Meaning just became very apparent. They could not sustain it in their minds for long before.
ERRM… AND SO WHAT?
1. Don’t expect actions which are deemed good or good you want to do, to just come to you. They are not the inherent state of your being or of the universe, you have to act them out routinely. You have to do good, to increase the chances of staying good.
2. Make the “good” activities you’re expected to do more pleasurable that the bad habits… give yourself rewards, treats, for meeting targets. Relish the pats on the back when you do something right
3. And if you can’t do the above, make them MEANINGFUL. Write down, or focus on your goals. Ask yourself:
What would my life look like if I didn’t mess this up?
What would my day look like if I did?
Realign your thoughts to them and your future as much as you can. Do a meditation on it before you study, or attempt a goal.
When the meaning of your aim is stronger than any fleeting pleasure your bad habits can offer, you’re halfway there to Self-Mastery.
I hope this helps you. Till our next Aristo-tale of intellectual adventure, farewell.