William James on establishing habits

Mechanics Magazine, Vol. II, (London: Knight & Lacey, 1824), cover, detail

Mechanics Magazine, Vol. II, (London: Knight & Lacey, 1824), cover, detail
Image credit: Archimedes' Lever

A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain. As the author last quoted [Julius Bahnsen in Beiträge zu Charakterologie mit besonderer Berücksichtigung pädagogischer Fragen, (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1867)] remarks:

“The actual presence of the practical opportunity alone furnishes the fulcrum upon which the lever can rest, by means of which the moral will may multiply its strength, and raise itself aloft. He who has no solid ground to press against will never get beyond the stage of empty gesture-making.”

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. And this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use. Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.
William James, in Habit, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1890), p. 60.

William James Posted on behalf of on Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 under Quotations.


  1. I just blogged my response to this in terms of my own writing projects.

  2. I was wondering if someone could help me to understand what William James means by “normal path of discharge”. What is a path of discharge?

Leave a Reply

You can embed videos and photos in your comments just by including the URL. Here's a list of supported websites and instructions.

You can use these HTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>