“I’ve always done it that way” – Thinking Critically about Habits

By , December 2, 2009

“I’ve always done it that way.” That may be the most dangerous phrase in the English language! Humans are creatures of habit. Some habits place us on the razor’s edge of disaster. This is where critical thinking becomes necessary.

Not long ago, a local senior citizen lost his home to fire. This man has lived in Alaska most of his life—he’s a true pioneer. I don’t know him, but the fact that he’s survived here so long indicates that he’s a wellspring of practical knowledge.

And yet, his house burned down while he was lighting his woodstove.

Imagine what a routine chore building a fire must be to a resident of this state! This gentleman has probably made more than 200 fires each year, for most of his life. Surely, he knew what he was doing!

He used an accelerant to start the fire. I never heard what it was—maybe lighter fluid, possibly even gasoline. He wanted the fire to catch faster. It got away from him, and consumed his home.

I still cannot believe that a person of his experience would have used an accelerant in his woodstove! To me, it’s unthinkable, but I would bet, should I ever meet him and ask, he would tell me, “I’ve always done it that way.”

Critical thinking never entered into it. He knew what he was doing! He’d done it many times before. Surely, he’s made more fires in his life than I have in mine. There’s nothing I could teach him about the process. It was probably part of his routine, a habit performed without thinking.

In a moment, his home disappeared, and with it a lifetime of belongings.

When a practice has been successful in the past, we assume it will continue to be so. This assumption becomes a trap that springs when the habit fails, because—where catastrophic results are concerned—it only has to fail once.

I’m not advocating paranoia. I’m urging periodic analysis of how we do things to prevent or reduce the likelihood of catastrophe.

I’m sure you can find such situations in your own life. My list is far too long! Survival, progress and success depend upon our willingness and ability to think critically about our most ingrained habits.

If you’ve “always done it that way,” take a moment occasionally to decide if it’s the right or best way. If not, take a step back from the razor’s edge, and find a new path!

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