As we prepare to finish another year and start a new one, it’s always good to pause and reflect. There are so many things to think about – our relationship with God, our relationship with people, our sense of contribution and life purpose, as well the seasons and stages of our life. In many ways, our lives are simply a mass of habits. In fact, most of the choices we make each day are more likely habits than they are actual decisions.
The apostle Paul tells us that genuine life transformation occurs when we renew our mind (Romans 12:1-2). Our thinking affects our emotions and our behaviours in profound ways. That’s why it is important to think about our own thought processes, to reflect and be self-aware enough to observe our own life patterns, habits and characteristics.
A number of recent studies have been conducted concerning habits. Here are a few insights from one such study, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
• Our brain constantly looks for ways to save effort. It tries to make almost any routine into a habit, which allows it to ramp down more often.
• The process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habits to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future. Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. Eventually, a habit is born.
• Habits aren’t destiny. Habits can be ignored, changed or replaced. Every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable.
• When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard or diverts to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.
• Habits never really disappear. They’re decoded into the structures of our brain … the problem is that your brain can't tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it's always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards. Cravings drive habits … and figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.
• The secret to changing old habits it to use what is already inside your head. Habits are a three-step loop – the cue, the routine, and the reward. Attack the middle step – the routine. You can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. Almost any behaviour can be transformed in this way. Habits cannot be eradicated. They must instead be replaced.
• For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. Also, your odds of changing go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group, even if it only as large as two people.
• Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through your life or organisation. "Keystone habits" start a process that, over time, transforms everything. The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul described life-change as a process of ‘putting off’ certain thinking and behavioural habits, especially the sinful nature, and ‘putting on’ new ones, such as the character of Christ (see Ephesians 4:17-32). This is a process that takes time and it is a partnership between God’s Spirit at work within us and our own discipline (Philippians 2:12-13).
What area of your own life is God prompting you to change next year? What unhealthy habits need attention? What new habits need forming?
I pray that you will take some significant steps in the coming year to become the person God intends you to be. After all, life is lived inside out.
Sow a thought, reap an act. Sow an act, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.