The Power of Habit

Habits are tricky things. We are more than our habits, but certainly not less. We live so much of our lives according to our habits, but still remain responsible for what we do and what we do not do. Some habits emerge without any thought and through mindless, repetitive actions, while others are formed only through deliberate effort. As Christians we work to build godly habits and put aside ungodly habits, but learn not to depend on habits for our salvation or lean too heavily upon them for sanctification.

Habits are the subject of the bestselling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. It is a fascinating book, and especially so when it focuses in on the habits that make our lives what they are.

We are creatures of habit, and I have to assume that God designed us this way. He designed us so we form neurological pathways that condition us to do certain things in a kind of routine. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

Here we see both the beauty and the horror of habits, the beauty of habits as they would exist in a perfect world and the horror of habits as they exist in a sin-stained world. Habits allow behavior to unfold automatically and without thinking, so that once we set them in motion, they unfold along established pathways. “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.” Both virtue and vice can be packaged within habits so that, to some degree, both positive and negative actions can be done on a near-subconscious level.

This is why we teach ourselves to form habits like reading the Bible at the very beginning of the day or to have family worship immediately after dinner—once the habit is established, we will obey its summons to do those things that are so important to our lives. And this is why we have such trouble battling those long-established habits of sin—once the habit is established, we will battle to disobey its summons to do those things that are so destructive. It seems like it should be so easy to stop looking at pornography, to stop drinking to excess, or to stop gorging ourselves on food, but our habits drive and cajole us into old patterns.

At heart, habits are quite simple. “This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.” The craving is the key: The things we crave are the things that power our habits. If we are to form good habits, we need to crave the right things, and if we are to break bad habits, we need to learn to control the bad cravings. Duhigg says, “Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.”

Duhigg looks at habits from a decidedly non-Christian and evolutionary perspective, but still offers a great deal of wisdom that will be of great interest to Christians. I was especially interested to see Duhigg enforce the importance of community in overcoming negative habits. “The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.” This sounds completely consistent with a Christian ethic which calls upon Christians to confess their sin to one another, to pray for one another, and to bear one another’s burdens. This is never more important than when trying to overcome old and sinful patterns of behavior.

When Paul told us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (see Romans 12:2), I am sure he was referring not only to thoughts, but also to habits because habits, too, emerge from the mind. Duhigg shows us the power of habits, but also the importance of overcoming and replacing bad habits. After all, “once you know a [bad] habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it.” As Christians acknowledging the existence of God, we have a heightened responsibility to use the power of habit with the greatest care and the greatest wisdom.

You can buy The Power of Habit at Amazon.

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