Slow the bleeding

Have you ever felt like a habit is useless because it doesn’t seem to be helping make progress? If anything, perhaps do things seem to be getting worse in spite of the habit?

I was reflecting recently that even in such a situation, it’s possible that the habit could still be a good and valuable one to preserve. That’s not the only possibility; we should always be trying to improve or replace deficient habits. Still, this possibility should remain at the back of our mind. It may help us make sense of some problems which are otherwise obstinately insensible and frustrating.

It’s possible that a good habit can slow our decline, for minimal effort, until it is possible to devote more time to it. In the long run, such a habit may more than repay the time devoted to it, even though in the moment all it seems to be doing is losing ground.

When I finished my fourth semester of biblical Hebrew, our professor told us that if we could read a single verse of Hebrew every day, we would preserve our Hebrew at that same level. If we could read two verses a day, we would continually grow and improve at the language with hardly any effort.

We all left that lecture, I am sure, with high spirits and the best of intentions. I promptly (along with, I suspect, most of the others) completely stopped reading Hebrew for several months. By the time I tried to return to it, I was already feeling terribly rusty, and the effort to get back to competence was frustratingly taxing.

What if I had instead chosen a middle path? What if I would have tried to read a few words of Hebrew every day, or a verse of Hebrew only once a week? In that case, I probably would have gotten worse at Hebrew, but certainly more slowly than if I were doing no Hebrew at all. And I’m sure you can see where this is going — once the inspiration hit me to review and bring my Hebrew back up to full strength, several months later, the distance I’d have to climb would not have been nearly so dispiriting.

Sometimes a habit doesn’t even have to be moving us in the right direction. Sometimes it’s enough even if all it’s doing is slowing down the descent toward mediocrity, for the time being.

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