William James Wisdom On Actions and Habit

The question of whether humans are in control or their actions is the central tenet discussed by William James’s book, “The Will to Believe”. He argues that our wants and desires can have a huge impact on what we believe. These beliefs then shape how we act during situations where they are applicable. It has been studied extensively since its publication and continues to be one of the most influential works written about belief systems.

The “William James Wisdom On Actions and Habit” is a book that was written by William James. The book discusses how people develop habits, and how they can be changed.

Man straightening the steel rod with hammer.

Note from the editor: This excerpt from the eminent psychologist William James’ works has been shortened from the original. 

The Principles of Psychology, 1890, “Habit” Written by William James

We must make as many helpful behaviors automatic and routine as possible as early as possible, and protect against developing in ways that are likely to be harmful to us, just as we should guard against the disease.

The more minutiae of our everyday lives we can give over to automatism’s carefree guardianship, the more our higher mental abilities will be free to do their due task. There is no more wretched human being than one who has nothing but hesitation as a habit, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the sipping of every cup, the time of waking and going to bed each day, and the start of every item of labor are all objects of explicit volitional consideration. Half of a man’s time is spent determining or regretting about things that should be so deeply embedded in him that they don’t even exist in his brain. If any of my readers has such everyday responsibilities that have yet to be instilled in them, let him begin right now to correct the situation.

Professor Bain’s chapter on “The Moral Habits” has some excellent practical advice. His treatment reveals two important maxims. The first is in the formation of a new habit or the discontinuation of an existing one:

We must be careful to propel ourselves with as much force and determination as possible. 

Gather all possible circumstances that will reinforce the right motives; place yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make commitments that are incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the situation permits; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such momentum that the urge to break down will not arise as quickly as it could otherwise; and each day that a breakdown is postponed increases the odds that it will not occur at all.

The second maxim is as follows:

Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. 

Each lapse is like letting go of a tightly wound-up ball of thread; a single slip undoes more than a large number of twists would rewind. Continuity of training is one of the most effective ways to educate the nervous system to operate in an infallible manner. Professor Bain puts it thus way:

“The existence of two opposing forces, one to be progressively lifted into the ascendancy over the other, is the uniqueness of moral habits, which distinguishes them from intellectual achievements. Above all, it is critical in such a position to never lose a fight. Every victory on the wrong side cancels out the benefits of multiple victories on the right. The most important precaution is to govern the two competing forces in such a way that one may enjoy a string of unbroken victories until repetition has reinforced it to the point where it can deal with the opposition under any conditions. “Theoretically, this is the finest vocation for mental development.”


The importance of establishing success from the start cannot be overstated. Failure at first tends to dull the vitality of all subsequent endeavors, while previous success energizes one’s future efforts.

The issue of “tapering-off,” or quitting behaviors like drinking and using opiates, comes up here, and it’s a topic on which specialists disagree within certain bounds, and in terms of what’s best for a specific situation.

However, if there is a genuine potential of carrying it out, every professional opinion would agree that sudden acquisition of a new habit is the ideal option. We must be cautious not to set the will up for failure from the start; yet, if one can endure it, a short period of misery followed by a period of freedom is the greatest thing to strive for, whether giving up a habit like opium or merely altering one’s rising or working hours. It’s remarkable how quickly a desire dies of inanition if it’s never satiated.

“Before one can begin ‘to create one’s self over again,’ one must first learn to walk steadfastly on the straight and narrow road, undisturbed, glancing neither to the right nor left.” Every day, he who sets a new resolution is like a person who, while approaching the brink of the ditch into which he is about to plunge, perpetually pauses and returns for a new run. There can be no accumulation of ethical powers without uninterrupted progress, and the supreme blessing of regular labor is to make this possible, as well as to train and habituate us in it.”

To the foregoing two maxims, a third may be added:

Take advantage of every chance you have to act on every resolve you make and every emotional prompting you may have in the direction of the habits you want to develop. 

Resolves and ambitions convey the new “set” to the brain not at the time of their formation, but at the time of their creating motor consequences.

No matter how rich one’s reservoir of maxims is, or how excellent one’s feelings are, if one has not taken advantage of every actual chance to act, one’s character may stay unchanged for the better. Hell is proverbially paved with good intentions. And this is an evident result of the ideas we’ve established.

A “character,” as J. S. Mill puts it, “is a thoroughly fashioned will,” and a will, in the sense that he defines it, is a collection of dispositions to act in a strong, swift, and decisive manner in all of life’s major situations. A inclination to behave is only successfully ingrained in us in proportion to the frequency with which the behaviors occur on a consistent basis, and the brain “grows” to their usage. It is worse than a chance wasted every time a determination or a wonderful glow of feeling disappears without producing practical fruit; it works to prevent future resolves and emotions from pursuing the regular course of discharge. The nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensitivity and feeling but never accomplishes a masculine concrete action, is the most despised kind of human character.


There is reason to believe that if we often avoid exerting effort, our ability to exert effort will be lost before we realize it; and that if we allow our attention to wander, it will eventually wander all the time. As we’ll learn later, attention and effort are only two labels for the same mental phenomenon.

As a final practical maxim, we may say something like this in relation to these habits of the will:

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. 

That is, be consistently austere or heroic in little matters, doing something every day or two for no other reason than you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of severe necessity arrives, you are not frightened and unprepared to face the challenge. This kind of asceticism is akin to the insurance a person buys for his home and belongings. The tax does him no favor at the moment, and it is possible that he may never get a return on his investment. If the fire does occur, though, having paid it will save him from destruction. So it is with the guy who has been used to habits of focused concentration, active willpower, and self-denial in trivial matters. When everything around him shakes, and his gentler fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blow, he’ll stand like a tower.

The agony to be experienced in the hereafter, according to religion, is no greater than the anguish we create for ourselves in this world by continuously forming our personalities incorrectly. If the young realized how quickly they would become walking bundles of habits, they would pay greater attention to their behavior while still in the plastic form. We are creating our own fortunes, for good or for ill, and we will never be able to undo them. Every little act of goodness or evil leaves an indelible mark. In Jefferson’s play, the intoxicated Rip Van Winkle excuses himself for each new dereliction by proclaiming, “I won’t count this time!” He may not count it, and a gracious Heaven may not count it, but it is counted anyway. The chemicals in his nerve cells and fibers are counting it, marking it, and saving it for use against him when the next temptation arises. Nothing we ever accomplish is wiped away in the strictest scientific sense.

Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to this. By doing so many distinct actions and hours of labor, we become perpetual drunkards in the moral realm, as well as authority and specialists in the practical and scientific sectors.



“William James Responsibility” is a quote from the American philosopher, William James. He talks about how responsibility is a habit, and that it can be developed through practice. Reference: william james responsibility.

Frequently Asked Questions

What did William James say about habits?

A: William James said that a habit is a living structure, like an organism, and he believed it took 30 days to create or break one.

Why does William James focus on habits?

A: As humans, we tend to focus on the future. We plan for our futures and spend much of our time imagining what it will be like when certain goals are achieved. However, William James tells us that focusing too much on the future can cause anxiety because we dont know what could happen along the way. In order to avoid these feelings of worry or anxiety about the unknowns in life, people need a dedicated focus on their present behaviors and existences

What advice did William James give about developing good habits?

A: William James advised that we should develop habits in order to create a life of work and leisure.

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