Inverting Chains of Habit

There’s a quip that Warren Buffett likes to throw around frequently which goes along the lines of:

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

What’s the first impression you got after reading that? That’s right: a negative impression. You most likely thought of the negative consequences of habit. Things like hookers, blow, needles, hooch, etc.

While it’s advisable to avoid these things in life, there is a whole other side of the equation of that nugget of wisdom that takes a little more effort to ferret out.


 

Invert, Always Invert

What if we invert the problem, like Munger always says? Instead of immediately thinking of all the negative habits we should be wary of, why not think of habits that can have a positive impact on the life we want to lead?

The reason this was on my mind was because of what Munger said at the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting when someone asked a question regarding the morality of Coca Cola. Munger basically said it was inane to think about only the negatives of something without taking into account the positives.

That led me to think about the chains of habit quote and to do something so simple that I had not done previously: step over to the other side and look at it from the opposite vantage point. Let me show you what I mean with 3 examples.

Health

I started going to the gym at the age of 13. My motivations in those early years had little to do with my concern for health and all to do with impressing the ladies. Seriously. I was at the local swimming pool once as a 13 year old and had just started getting into pumping the iron.

A girl I had a crush on quipped that I had nice pecks. That one comment basically led to the creation of my gym habit. While I never really got the ladies with my pecks, I kept up with the habit of going regularly to the gym.

After almost 17 years, exercise has been fused into a core part of my being. It’s like an addiction. I can’t go for too long without it. I get withdrawal symptoms. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, I feel great when I do exercise. Arnold was not lying when he was talking about “the pump“.

Education

Bless my parents, they bought me tons of books as a kid and set me on the path of being a total nerd from the start of my childhood. It also probably didn’t help that I was an insatiably curious child, agonizing my mom with question after question after question as a preschool-aged child.

Books were always around when I was a kid. I vividly recall reading books on dinosaurs and space as a 3 or 4 year old. I used to go to the library and read all the time throughout elementary school. I have a special fascination with the ocean and I annoyed the hell out of my childhood best friend by reading his books on the ocean whenever I slept over at his house – to the point that he started hiding his books when I came over.

I’ve always been reading. I am always reading. Similar to exercise, if I go for too long without reading, I start getting agitated because I haven’t gotten my nerd fix. This addiction to need to read has also been fused into the core part of my being. Currently I am in the middle of juggling Why We Snap by Douglas Fields, Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber, and The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant.

Finance

This one, I wasn’t so good at to start, evidenced by the $54,000 in student loans I managed to gather up while going through college. However, as I started paying back these loans, I started wising up about the importance of having good money habits.

The consistent, accelerated payments for around 3 years of student loan repayment, combined with incessant reading on the subject of money allowed me to shift the way I approached money and personal finance. As the monthly repayment habit took shape, it was easier to envision how the cash flows that were going out to student loan debt repayment could easily be switched to flow into savings and investments.

Once the student loans were payed off, I was already so used to seeing the cash flows shipped off each month that the habit to start stuffing retirement accounts and tax advantaged accounts was a simple one. That habit is now solidified and I get slightly agitated when the monthly cash flow amount dips below a certain number.

Conclusion

When examining the quote:

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

It’s easy, and almost automatic, to think immediately of all of the negative things to avoid. But it’s important to also ponder how chains of habit can be a positive reinforcement in life as opposed to mere detriments.

While wise to avoid racing trains, crack cocaine, alcoholism, loose morals, etc. it is also immensely wise to create positive habits and chain them to your being until they become too heavy to be broken.

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