I was a Boy Scout when I was young, a proud member of Troop 42 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Our Scoutmaster was a patient and generous man whom I’ll call “Mr. B-P”, to hide his identity and my own senescent inability to actually remember his name. Mr. B-P was well-liked and capable, but he had one quirk: He claimed he was addicted to Coca-Cola. He always had a can in hand, at each weekly meeting and every special event. It wasn’t part of a larger regimen of unhealthy diet; Mr. B-P was fit and not overweight, and didn’t seem to indulge in other junk foods. His Coke addiction was simply a harmless oddity and a source for jokes and teasing every week.
Except that camping is a big part of being in the Boy Scouts. And when you go camping, you have to carry in all of your own provisions. You can imagine that, no matter how efficiently you plan your meals – packing all sorts of things dehydrated, concentrated, and deconstituted – there’s only so much you can reduce the weight of your load when you feel it must contain a case of Coca-Cola. And that was just for a two-night camp out. When the troop went to summer camp at Camp Squanto for a whole week, Mr. B-P had to have supplemental cases brought in every couple of days. (I remember one night that summer, when we both happened to visit the latrine at the same time, he turned to me as he stood at the urinal and said, “You know, I do like Coca-Cola, but this is the pause that refreshes.”)
Of course, Mr. B-P wasn’t technically addicted to Coke per se — although he probably would have had one heck of a caffeine headache if he’d gone cold turkey — but he was clearly dependent on it. As dependencies go, this was pretty innocuous. I don’t imagine he’d have lasted very long as Scoutmaster if he’d insisted on bringing a case of Bud on every campout. And because he was in good physical shape, it would have been hard to argue that his Coke habit was actually doing much harm.
Still, it was an burden that he bore unquestioningly. When preparing to hike into a campground, he felt he had to plan on carrying an extra 18 pounds of aluminum and sugary carbonation, rather than, say, a one-ounce bottle of No-Doz. He did not speak of it as a choice, but as a necessity. It was his burden to bear, and he managed fine, but even as a kid I thought there was something sad about someone relinquishing his will in that way.
Not all habits are inherently harmful; they can be a source of comfort or even reliability, as with some office routines like checking mail or replacing equipment. But any habit slavishly adhered to can limit us or impose on us. Is there a morning ritual (a trip to the cafeteria, the daily crossword, emptying your e-mail inbox?) that you must complete before you can start your work? Do you get the shakes when work product coming from subordinates isn’t in your preferred format? Like my Scoutmaster, you may be carrying baggage that you don’t really need.