Habits exert enormous influence in our lives. For better or worse, they guide most of our daily activities, guiding us automatically through routine behaviors (like brushing our teeth), which frees our minds to focus on issues that require deliberate thinking (like, “Now what was it my wife told me she wanted for her birthday?”)
Over the past few weeks, we considered three key principles of habit change, namely:
- Every habit has three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
- You can change an undesirable habit by keeping the cue and reward but learning a new routine.
- Habit change builds momentum if you can change a single “keystone habit” and then continue to build on consecutive “small wins.”
In this post, I’ll explain four additional principles that you can use to support habit change.
Recognize Your Limits
The forth principle of habit change is that will power is like a muscle: it can be strengthened and yet needs to be exerted strategically. Studies have shown that will power—which is a central dynamic of habit change—is not static; it can actually be strengthened over time with deliberate practice. This means that if we focus on changing relatively simple habits, we can eventually move on to developing or conquering more challenging habits.
But like muscles, will power can be depleted. If you spend much of your day on tasks that require a significant amount of will power, by the end of the day you will often find it difficult to do things that are comparatively easy. This is why I exercise first thing in the morning. If I wait until later in the day, I have a much more difficult time hitting the running path.
Brian Tracy applies this principle creatively in his popular book, Eat That Frog! 21 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. The key principle in the book is found in this axiom: “If you have three frogs to eat, eat the ugliest one first.” In other words, if you have three difficult tasks to do, apply your reserve of will power to the most difficult one first, and then you’ll have enough will power left over to conquer the less difficult tasks.
I do this each morning. I make a list of the things I need to do. I pick out the “ugliest frogs” and do them first. Then the rest of my day seems so much easier.
Plan for Temptation
The fifth principle of habit change is that the best way to overcome the temptation to revert to old routines is to have a detailed action plan. When you are first trying to change a habit, you’ll often do well for the first few days. But then out of nowhere you’ll encounter the triggering cue and feel an enormous urge to fall back into your old routine.
You can counteract this tendency by developing a deliberate and practical plan for what you will do when you experience the temptation to revert to the old behavior. For example, when I was trying to break my habit of sneaking M&M’s out of the jar we kept in the pantry for our grandson, I placed other healthier food in easily accessible places so that I could grab one of those snacks whenever I felt an urge for M&M’s.
Proverbs 22:3 teaches a closely related principle: “The prudent sees danger and hides himself,
but the simple go on and suffer for it.” If we realize a certain behavior poses an unhealthy temptation (M&M’s really are very unhealthy), the wise thing to do is to eliminate the risk altogether. That’s why we’ve emptied our pantry of candy … both to guard our own health and to avoid contributing to unhealthy habits in our grandchildren.
Believe You Can Change
The sixth principle is that faith is an essential part of changing habits. If you don’t believe you can change a habit, you probably won’t. But if you believe that change is possible and that you will succeed in your effort to change a particular habit, there is a far better chance that you will.
This is where the gospel can play a decisive role.
When Jesus died for our sins, he not only freed us from the penalty of sin but also promised to give us the power to change our attitudes and habits so that we can become more and more like Jesus himself (see Eph. 4:22-24; Rom. 8:28-29). Moreover, he has given us his Holy Spirit to inspire and empower us in this transformation process (2 Cor. 3:18).
This why habit change is very much a matter of faith, and why we should pray daily for God to strengthen our faith in his promise and ability to help us change our thoughts, words and actions so that we imitate Jesus more and more every day (Eph. 5:1).
Change Is a Team Effort
The final principle is that habit change is more likely to occur within a community (even if it’s just two people). There are those rare people who are so amazingly self-disciplined that they can develop and change habits “solo.”
But for most people, habit change is far more likely to take place if we pursue it with the help of others.
Any time I want to change a habit, I tell those closest to me about it. Why? Most of all, I want their prayer support. But I’m also aided by the additional accountability. Knowing that they will ask me how I’m doing—or even confront me when they see me fall back into old routines—provides a lot of additional motivation to stay the course.
And sometimes those friends can actually provide advice, encouragement or support that will make the change process easier. That’s what my sister, Sunny, did when I told her I was trying to give up candy. She came by my house with a whole bag of healthy snacks, including some of her fantastic dried peaches … which I immediately put inside the jar that had previously held the infamous M&M’s.
Those peaches not only provide an excellent alternative to unhealthy snacks … they also remind me that there is someone who loves me and is praying and rooting for me as I seek to change this particular habit. That is one of the reasons I haven’t eaten an M&M in nearly three months … and now I don’t even want to.
- What habits have you been trying to change in recent weeks? What progress have you made?
- Which of the seven principles do you find to be most helpful? Which ones are most difficult to apply?
- Which principles do you think would be most useful as you continue to in your efforts to take your habits “captive to Christ”?
- What will you do tomorrow, specifically, to make progress in changing a particular habit?
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© 2016 Ken Sande
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