Habit Is the Thinker’s Friend

Edna May Wonacott as Ann Newton in 'Shadow of a Doubt'

Edna May Wonacott as Ann Newton in 'Shadow of a Doubt'

‘We eat and sleep and that’s about all. We don’t even have any real conversations. We just talk.’

Of all the films Alfred Hitchcock directed, he claimed his favourite was 1943’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt.’ This lesser known classic is set in Santa Rosa, California. The serene suburban normality of the Newton family is interrupted by the arrival of sinister Uncle Charlie from the big city.

Joseph Newton: ‘Don’t put the hat on the bed.’
Uncle Charlie: ‘Superstitious, Joe?’
Joseph Newton: ‘No, but I don’t believe in inviting trouble.’

Hitchcock seems to enjoy both celebrating and undermining small town American life. He likes exploring the banality of evil and the strangeness of the familiar. At one stage the precocious youngster of the house, Ann Newton, announces:

‘I’m trying to keep my mind free of things that don’t matter because I have so much on my mind.’

I have some sympathy with Ann Newton. Modern life is full of incidental choices and decisions. We are assaulted on all sides by the insignificant, the inconsequential, the irrelevant. What to wear, what to eat, what to say, where to go, who to meet, who to follow? It’s sometimes hard to find time for the meaningful and important.

In his 1970 book ‘Future Shock’ the American writer Alvin Toffler observed that the contemporary world throws up an excess of equivalent options. It creates ‘overchoice.’ And this choice overload can be confusing, dissatisfying, mentally draining. Perhaps it lay at the root of Santa Rosa's suburban anxiety.

My own response to overchoice is to eliminate decision making from large sections of my life. I decide not to make decisions. I choose not to choose.

So I always wear pale blue shirts with the top button done up. I never wear party shirts. I carry a flat cap in case it rains and a cotton bag in case I need to shop. On a plane I take a window seat. At the theatre I take an aisle seat. On the tube I try for the one next to the glass divide. I walk on the down escalator and I stand on the up. I sleep when a vehicle is moving (so long as I’m not at the wheel). I eat cheddar on Tuc biscuit (with an apple) for weekday lunch. I share starters, but not main course or dessert. I eat fish and chips on Friday (it’s my religion). I take an afternoon nap at the weekend. I make notes on the back of my dry cleaning ticket. I avoid things that are described as ‘fun’ or ‘funky.’ If I must order a cocktail, I ask for a Negroni. And I know I can’t go wrong with a Cotes du Rhone.

As I’ve grown older I have accrued quite a number of incidental habits. They perhaps derive from some active choice I made in the distant past. But for the most part they serve to excuse me from any current engagement with decision making.

Habit demands nothing of one’s attention. Habit frees up the mind for other things. Habit finds space for mad ideas. Habit is the thinker’s friend.

I have found that in business too we are constrained from thinking great thoughts by the dreariness of everyday dilemmas. Routine and repetition may in fact provide protection from the maelstrom of decision-making that confronts us in the office.

I’d suggest you consider the following.

Always wear a suit, grey or navy. Never wear a costume. Write with a fine blue Bic. Use plastic wallets, not bull dog or paper clips. Walk every floor, every day. Limit yourself to one exclamation mark per email. Don’t play golf or work the weekend. Never kiss your Clients. Have a latte in the morning and a Nescafe in the afternoon (with a Tunnock Caramel Wafer). Eat the same lunch from the same vendor. Always nod in meetings and write stuff down. Place your watch on the desk to monitor time diplomatically. Solve it in the room. Don’t high five, literally or metaphorically. Don’t ‘touch base’ or ‘reach out.’ Make your first comment positive and your last comment memorable. And the older you get, the earlier you should leave the party.

It seems clear to me that force of habit preserves us from the trivial and superficial. It makes time and space for proper contemplation. So why not liberate yourself from the tedium of choice by creating your own customs and conventions; by inventing the habits of a lifetime?


No. 138