Most of life is on autopilot. Your life is largely about habits you have made. We don’t make decisions about most of the things we do. We develop a habit, and the habit determines our life. As the old saying goes, “Choose your rut carefully; you are going to be in it for the next 25 miles.” Choose your habits carefully; they are going to determine the quality of your life. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Your marriage is mostly about habits. Ever watch the show King of Queens? Here is a couple that has gotten in the habit of picking at each other. They complain and they argue and fight and they pick—all out of habit. Do you want a marriage like that?
They don’t get up each day and say to themselves, “I think I’m going to pick a fight today.” They certainly don’t say to themselves, “I think I’d rather have a miserable marriage rather than a happy marriage. To reach that goal, I think I’ll complain and argue and criticize all day long.”
They have actually done research on this. You can complain some. You can criticize some. You can correct some. However, the number of complements and praises and ‘attaboys’ need to outnumber the criticisms by a factor of about five to one. If they don’t, your marriage is headed to the toilet.1
Your health is largely about habits. You are in the habit of exercising or not, eating too much or not, and resting too much or not. If you are in the habit of eating a big bowl of ice cream every night and you don’t exercise, you are probably overweight. You are a little depressed about the way you look. You don’t have a lot of energy. All this is because of the habits you have formed.
You don’t get up and make choices about these things every day. You don’t think about whether or not you’re going to exercise. Your habit determines your behavior. You don’t get up and think about whether you eat more calories than you consume or not. You just do what the habit dictates.
Your money is where it is because of habits you have made. Money is an area where it is especially easy to make habits.
We are in the habit of setting aside a certain amount of money every Thursday. We have instructed our bank that every Thursday we want a certain amount transferred from our checking account into a savings account. This makes saving automatic. We don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to stress about it. We don’t have to decide each week to do it. It is just a habit.
About half of Americans are in the habit of spending more money than they make.2 They don’t make the conscious choice to go a little further in debt each year, it is just a habit. Do this for a few years and you will discover that before long you are in a pretty deep hole. One more.
Your walk with God is largely about habits. The book of Hebrews speaks of people who don’t go to church much. The writer of Hebrews says that we are not to neglect meeting together, “as is the habit of some.” Neglecting to meet together is simply habit, as are many of our spiritual disciplines. We either get into the habit of reading our Bibles every day, or I’ll bet you didn’t read your Bible this morning. You probably never even thought about it. If you did read your Bible this morning, you probably didn’t think too much about that either. It is just a habit. A habit that will either draw you closer to God, or push you further and further away.
What if you could change your habits so that they lead you in the direction that you actually want to go? What if you could put success on autopilot? What if you could put it on autopilot to exercise every day, read the Bible every day, eat no more calories than you burn, spend no more money than you make, and any of 100 other things you would like to do to lead you to the life you’ve only imagined.
That is what this book is about.
In this book, we will look at what the Bible says, along with what the latest scientific research reveals about habits. We are going to look at some fascinating stories of people who started habits and maintain them over the long haul.
What we have learned is that success is rarely about trying really hard to do something. It is about learning the skill of starting a habit—which does involve some trying hard for a time. But, it also involves a lot of other skills as well.
For example, did you know that people who eat on smaller plates, generally speaking, eat fewer calories than people who eat on large plates? Did you know that habits are contagious? We tend to do what the people in our group do. There has been a lot of research done in recent years about habits—how to form them and how to break them. We will be looking at this research, as well as what the Bible says about habits.
The Bible and Habits
As important as habits are, you might be surprised to discover how seldom the word habit appears in the Bible. Looking at the NIV, the English word habit appears only five times. Here they are:
- If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death. Exodus 21:29 (NIV)
- However, if it was known that the bull had the habit of goring, yet the owner did not keep it penned up, the owner must pay, animal for animal, and the dead animal will be his. Exodus 21:36 (NIV)
- The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said. Numbers 22:30 (NIV)
- Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to. 1 Timothy 5:13 (NIV)
- Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25 (NIV)
The first two deal with the same thing. If your bull hurts someone, you are not responsible. Not unless the bull has been in the habit of doing this. Then, you are responsible. The habit of the bull makes the difference of whether or not you are punished.
The next one is from one of the most humorous stories in the Bible. It is the place where Balaam’s donkey talks to him. Balaam corrects the donkey and the donkey speaks back to him, asking the rhetorical question, “Have I been in the habit of doing this?” You gotta love the Bible! Great story.
The first New Testament instance of the word habit had to do with the church’s benevolence program. The church cared for widows, but was very careful about who did and did not get on the list. Specifically, Paul instructs Timothy not put young widows on the list. The reason had to do with their habits. Paul says that they were in the habit of being idle and being busybodies. Because of her habits, they should be kept off the list.
The last one is a classic, and one we referred to earlier. It has to do with habit of meeting with the church or not. This verse teaches that we should form the habit of encouraging one another daily. By the way, notice the habit is not to sit in straight rows and watch the same event happen on the same stage. The habit is to encourage one another. I encourage you; you encourage me. It is a habit. We do it every day.
Why we fail to make or break habits
Ever wonder why so many of us make resolutions each New Year that we fail to keep? Approximately 45 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions, but only 8 percent succeed.3
In a way, we will spend this whole book answering that question. But, part of the answer comes from one letter: the letter “s” in resolutions. We fail to keep resolutions in part because we have so many of them.
If you want to break a habit or make a habit, you do well to work on one thing at a time. Work on exercise, or getting on a budget, or complaining less than you do, or having a quiet time. Don’t work on more than one.
Amazing things happen when you successfully develop a single habit. Again, they’ve done research on this. People who develop the habit of exercising daily tend to stay on a budget. They tend to drink less and smoke less. It seems that success in one area spills over into other areas as well.4
However, working on several areas simultaneously does not work. There is a verse somewhere that says, “from one degree of glory to another.”5 We tend to focus on the word glory. I’d like to invite you to focus on the word one. It is a reminder that we will do well to work on one thing at a time. Paul said, “this one thing I do,” not, “these 10 things I dabble in.” (Philippians 3:13)
So, here is your assignment. Pick one thing, and only one thing that you would like to make a habit. Conversely. You could pick a habit you want to break. But just pick one. Be very specific. I am working on a project with my church and got a little feedback this last weekend. One man said he wanted to memorize more Scripture. More is not a goal. I invited him to think in terms of setting a goal along the lines of, “memorizing one verse a week and retaining it for at least three months.” This kind of specificity sticks to the brain and leads to success. My goal is to exercise every day. One lady in our church said her goal was to straighten out her husband. Good luck with that.
Once you have success developing one habit, it will be easier for you to believe that you can develop any habit. You can exercise, have a daily quiet time, stay on a budget, quit smoking, and do anything else God puts on your heart to do. We really can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. (Philippians 4:13) It seems, we just can’t do them all at once. One habit of the time, one day at a time. As the old saying goes, “Yard by yard life is hard, inch by inch it’s a cinch.”
I’m going to go ride my new bike now. That is my habit that I am working on as I write. I want to exercise every day. This is day 20. They say it takes about 66 days to form a habit—and one day to break one.
I buried a man recently who is 10 years younger than me. He died of a sudden heart attack. It was a wake-up call for me, and I realized that life is fragile. I am not immune from the same human frailties that affect all men. I work as a writer and it is a sedentary lifestyle. I need to exercise every day.
Josh Hunt, Break a Habit / Make a Habit (Josh Hunt, 2013).