Seven Principles of Habit Change

by | Jan 4, 2016

I was sitting on the patio of an expensive restaurant in Beirut. Six young Lebanese were sitting at the table next to us, glued to their smart phones. Not a word of conversation between them for minutes on end, a shared agreement that people elsewhere were more interesting than anyone at their table.

Each of those young people was ensnared in the same habit cycle that drives the lives of people around the globe, including you and me. When their phones buzzed or they simply felt bored, they automatically glanced at their screens and experienced a small bit of pleasure.

In simple terms, they were each caught in the cycle of “cue – routine – reward,” which is the foundation of every kind of habit.

Habit 3

Studies indicate that up to 40% of the actions we all perform every day aren’t actual decisions; they’re habits that follow this simple yet controlling loop.

This habit loop causes much of the unproductive and damaging behavior in this world, whether it be from poor eating or exercise, hours wasted on social media, the slavery of addictions, inefficient work or management habits, or uncontrolled emotions that erode our relationships.

But this loop can also be turned into a powerful tool for personal discipline, organizational growth, and societal improvement. As Charles Duhigg illustrates in his excellent book, The Power of Habit, people who’ve understood these three interlocking dynamics have used them to stop riots in Iraq, build Fortune 500 companies, overcome addictions and win the Super Bowl.

At a more ordinary level, I’m using the power of the habit loop to change sinful patterns in my life, to eat healthier, to prevent email from undermining my work productivity, and to show my wife greater empathy rather than offering her knee-jerk correction or advice when she shares a problem with me.

Once these habits are firmly ingrained, I’ve got a list of other areas of my life that I want to bring under the control of wisdom and will rather than indulgence and impulse. In short, I want to live out more and more the wisdom principle that the Apostle Paul set forth 2,000 years ago:

“I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1Cor. 9:27).

Over the next few weeks we will examine and apply some of the key principles of habit change, looking at them from both a biblical and neurological perspective. Each of these principles is a specific application of either self-awareness or self-engagement and an extension of the READ principle. Here is a brief overview of a few of these principles.

  1. Every habit has three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
  2. You can change an undesirable habit by keeping the cue and reward but learning a new routine.
  3. Habit change builds momentum if you can change a single “keystone habit” and then continue to build on consecutive “small wins.”
  4. Will power is like a muscle: it can be strengthened and yet needs to be exerted strategically.
  5. The best way to overcome the temptation to revert to old routines is to have a detailed action plan.
  6. Faith is an essential part of changing habits.
  7. Habit change is more likely to occur within a community (even if it’s just two people).

If you too would like to become a more disciplined person—to take every emotion, thought, word and action “captive to obey Christ” (2Cor. 10:5), you can start the process by buying a journal or spiral notebook (or simply opening a new document on your computer), so you can begin tracking your goals, observations, lessons and victories for habit change. I suggest that you begin by writing out detailed answers to these questions:

  1. Why would you like to become a more disciplined person? What benefits might occur? What problems might be avoided?
  2. Make a list of at least thirty benign habits you can easily identify in your life (e.g., how you brush your teeth, what route you drive to work, how you make coffee). This will raise your awareness of how much of your life is guided by habit.
  3. Make a list of a dozen habits that waste or undermine your time, energy, health, resources, productivity, or relationship with God or other people (e.g., random snacking or turning on the television simply because you are bored, or automatically shifting blame for a problem to others)
  4. If there were just three habits you could change in the next three months, what would they be?
  5. Prayerfully list two or three people who you might approach in the weeks ahead to support or even accompany you on your journey to develop the wisdom and discipline needed to change habits.

Many aspects of this journey are new to me and I’m excited to see how the Lord is going to use these principles to help me grow in my ability to love God, to discipline myself, and to serve those around me more effectively!

– Ken Sande

PS – This post is the first of a series of four posts, the next of which is  Conquering M&M’s (and Premature Advice).

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2016 Ken Sande

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