The Spirituality and Science of Habits

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:8-9

While it is true that we rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives more and more into the likeness of Jesus, it’s also true that the process of spiritual transformation demands considerable effort on our part.

If I want a life marked by peace, I need to stop the habit of worrying and cultivate the habit of stillness and meditation.

If I want a life marked by generosity, I need to stop the habit of wasteful spending and cultivate the habit of giving.

If I want a life marked by joy, I need to stop the habit of focusing on what I lack and cultivate the habit of gratitude.

If I want a life marked by forgiveness, I need to stop the habit of fueling my grudges and cultivate the habit of letting go.

Scientists at Duke University discovered that at least 45% of our waking behavior is habitual. In other words, if we want our lives to be different we’re going to need to change our habits. Fortunately, researchers in the fields of neuroscience and behavioral economics have discovered the critical steps in developing new habits that actually stick (as opposed to those New Year’s resolutions you made and broke by January 21).

Here’s a simple but effective three-step process:

Step One: Identify Your Trigger. Your trigger is that critical moment when you’re either going to go down the well-worn path of your old way of behaving, or you’re going to engage in a new, desired behavior. The more specific you can be in identifying your trigger, the better. For instance, imagine I want to start the habit of meditating for 20 minutes each morning, but I consistently fail to do it. As I reflect on my behavior I realize that my trigger is that moment first thing in the morning when I’m tempted to turn on my cell phone. If I turn on my phone I’ll start checking e-mail and before I know it, I’m out of time. That’s my trigger.

Step Two: Identify Your Old Habit. In the example I’ve given above I’ve already identified my old habit. It’s turning on my cell phone and checking my e-mail. I know I shouldn’t do, but I so often do. I mean, what if I got notified that I’m a sweepstakes winner or something cool like that? Come on!

Step Three: Identify Your New Habit. Exactly what new behavior do you want to start? In my example, I want to start the habit of morning meditation. Now, being an over-achiever I’m tempted to make my goal “meditating for 20 minutes each morning” but researchers have a name for that kind of goal: STUPID! OK, that’s actually my name for that kind of goal. Researchers are much kinder, and they have discovered that creating a “micro-habit”, something that can be accomplished in 60-seconds or less, will dramatically increase the odds that we’ll develop a long-lasting habit. So if I’m wise, my new habit is actually “to sit and meditate for 60-seconds each morning.” Chances are I’ll meet and exceed that goal each day.

Will that simple habit change transform me into the likeness of Jesus? Ah…no. But the accumulated impact of many new habits will most certainly set my life in a new trajectory. I’ll trust the Holy Spirit to transform my heart and my mind (Romans 12:1-2) but I’ll also take responsibility for taking off the habits that don’t reflect Christ, and putting on new habits that do.

Want to learn more about the formation of new habits? Check out these fun little videos from my friends at Box of Crayons.

What new habit would you like to develop to change the trajectory of your life?

Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN.

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