A habit is simply an ingrained pattern of behavior that we have picked up along the way. Our brain chemistry actually re-wires itself to “hard code” long-ingrained habits, reducing the mental energy we have to exert to perform the habit by making it automatic. In a very real way, our habits determine who we are. Fortunately, just as our bodies have the capacity for forming new habits, they also have the capacity to change ingrained ones.
Where do our habits come from? Sometimes, they are the result of intentional formation—we have decided that a particular path is the correct one and we have undertaken to train ourselves in this path. But most habits form via the influence of the culture around us. We are all possessed of deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and ways of doing things that we have learned over time, some from our earliest childhood. Some of these “organic habits” are good and some are neutral. Often, however, a little reflection will reveal that some of our habits are not merely neutral, but are bound up with sinful ways of thinking and acting. Some of our habits will need to change if we would live the good life of loving God and the people in our world.
We must tread carefully here because our sin is tied up in our habits. Sin is deeper than our habits and we cannot fully escape our sin with habit change. The mystery of Christ’s work in our hearts and the ongoing sanctification we experience as the Holy Spirit does its work is what removes sin. In our ongoing submission to him, our presence with him in prayer, our close connection with his people, our communion with him in the sacraments—in all these things and more, God is at work to cleanse and renew and restore.
And while we cannot be set free from sin without the work of God, we are not free of responsibility for it. We are called to die to our sin (Romans 6:11), to put off the “old self” of our former way of life (Ephesians 4:22-24) that consists almost entirely of mindset and habits. We are to put on the new self (Colossians 3:1-10), that is, a new way of thinking and being in the world. Part of this process is habit change.
Habit change is near the center of spiritual formation and any genuine program of discipleship. The Christian life is lived constantly in the transforming love of God, and in response to his love, we seek to align ourselves to the pattern of life revealed by Jesus.
Once we were conformed to the pattern of the world, but in response to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, we are changed. If this change is in mind only, then is it real change? True spiritual formation is change from the inside out, culminating in habits and patterns of life emerging from a heart transformed by God.
There is much to say about the theology and practice of habit change, but we must start somewhere. Here is a short introduction to habit change for Christians.
Successful habit change ultimately distills to these steps:
- Prepare well
- Attend to your energy and will
- Lean on the strength of your community
- Fight with God’s strength through each small challenge
- Navigate the emotional stages of habit change wisely
- Beginning well can make the difference between a failed attempt and a thriving, successful new habit.
- Begin with a season of prayer, taking 3-5 days to ask God to guide and empower your steps. Do not begin too soon!
- What else is happening in your life? Major life transitions, long vacations, illness, financial worries, and other stressors draw from the same well of energy you have to devote to habit change. If at all possible, avoid committing to a new habit during one of these periods.
- Create a short written plan (one page?) that you can reference as you work through your new habit.
- Use vivid language, be as specific as possible about what your new habit will improve about your life.
- List the obstacles you anticipate encountering and identify strategies to overcome each obstacle–again, be specific and envision each obstacle and solution as clearly as possible. Don’t underestimate small obstacles!
- List 3-5 encouraging, wise, and prayerful people you can rely on for help during the period of your habit formation. Contact them and talk them through your plan.
- Review your plan daily, especially as a part of your devotional routine.
- Set a launch date and begin with enthusiasm, momentum, and fanfare!
Attend to your energy and will
- Habit change is both a spiritual and physical challenge. We have only so much energy and will that we can devote to the demands of our life, so attending carefully to these is essential.
- Get extra rest. If you normally require 6-7 hours or sleep, plan for an extra hour. Adequate rest is one of the leading physical indicators of successful habit change.
- Eat well. Closely related to adequate sleep is a diet that supports habit change. Avoid foods that spike blood sugar or that tend to bring about mood swings (large amounts of caffeine or alcohol). Don’t skip meals, eat healthy snacks to keep blood sugar and metabolism steady.
- Focus on one thing at a time. Every exertion of will saps our ability to do things that are new, difficult, or out of routine. Seek out a single positive change at a time and stick to it until the habit is ingrained.
Lean on the strength of your community
- Inform your supporters of your progress daily.
- Ask for specific help in prayer.
- Confess failures and difficulty, allowing them to be a visible manifestation of God’s grace to you.
Fight with God’s strength through each small challenge
- As you are tempted to quit, pause and pray. Let this not be a desperate prayer, but rather a quiet moment of silence before God. Remind yourself that God loves you not for your habits, but fully and completely, regardless of your performance. Breathe. Put off the decision of whether to quit or continue the habit for a few minutes and wait in silence.
- Discern what is happening in your body; are you tired, hungry, under stress?
- Prayerfully engage your imagination to overcome each challenge. What will your life be like if you continue forward? What kind of person will you become?
- Anticipate resistance and outright spiritual warfare—our enemy has much at stake when we undertake to go deeper into the good life. Sickness, personal conflict, financial burdens, and other stressors may show up “coincidentally” right in the middle of your struggle. And just as such opposition will show up, so will God’s strength be all the more available to you. Look for it, pray, and move forward.
- Celebrate victory but don’t allow victory to give you permission to fail next time.
Navigate the three emotional stages of habit change wisely
- For most people, the first phase is the downhill trot. The habit change seems relatively easy, your enthusiasm is high, and you knock over challenges without too much effort. This phase might last a few days or even a week. Celebrate success early and often, capitalizing on the momentum and ease of this first stage. Soak in the accolades and encouragement from your support team!
- Sooner or later, the uphill battle will come. The challenges seem harder, each decision to move forward costs more. Your energy level and enthusiasm drops. The support from your team may seem distant, forced, or unhelpful, or you may be reluctant to tell them the whole story. The benefits of giving up may well seem greater than the effort required to keep going. Keep your head down and your “game face” on! Navigate each challenge one at a time, fighting with God’s strength and the strategies mentioned above. Keep your plan handy. Check in with your supporters multiple times a day if necessary. This phase may last a few days or perhaps a week, but you will pass beyond it!
- At last you will reach the steady pace stage, something like the rhythm of a brisk walk. Each engagement of the habit feels more natural, you begin to enjoy the journey, the benefits come into realistic focus and you begin to see the fruit of your labor. It is not quite effortless, but the habit has become a part of you. It may take three to four weeks to reach and maintain this stage. This is the time to celebrate because you have indeed accomplished something great. Also, beware: an upset in routines, change in schedule, or appearance of a major stressor can force you back into the uphill battle stage. This is normal and to be expected. Put your head down again and fight through; it is likely that reaching the steady pace stage will take less effort than the first time.
It may take three weeks or five, or perhaps more for a particular habit; though many sources claim 21 days, there is very little scientific or experiential evidence that this is some magic number. The important part is that we stick with the habit until it becomes a part of us.
What tips and tricks have worked for you?