Because Our Habits Form Us…

Posted by on Jan 16, 2022 in Blog | 8 comments

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Though I no longer remember her name, I remember the enthusiastic student teacher in my primary school teaching us about habits, and how important it is to form good ones. “A habit sticks with you,” she proclaimed. She wrote the word HABIT on the chalk board, systematically then rubbing out one letter at a time – creatively turning the lesson into an exercise in both spelling and ethics. You take out the H, and it is still there A BIT. Work harder, and remove the A, but BIT is still left. Yet more effort, and the B disappears – but IT is still left. “And so children,” she finished, “That’s how hard it is to get rid of a HABIT. It takes a lot of work – so be very sure to form good ones.”

Strange the things you remember from your youth. I am not sure why I found that lesson so memorable, but here I am, well over 50 years later, still able to recite it back. And 50 plus years later, the truth of that simple exercise continues to strike me.

Because our habits form us, it is important that we periodically take stock of them.

Think how much of your life is spent in the auto pilot of the habitual.

When I get up in the morning, I don’t agonise about what to do next. Toilet and teeth are quickly followed by shaving and stretching, which are then followed by bedmaking, Bible and breakfast. If it’s a non-employment day for Rosemary, these might be accompanied by friendly chatter, but if it’s one of her income producing days, she sets off before 6, leaving me snoozing on a little longer. 

This pattern works well for me and has survived multiple reviews over the years. The only change has been the addition of stretching to the program, a reluctant introduction in the face of advancing years and decreasing body flexibility. Oh, and I should add that stretching is done listening to some worship music which continues to play through the bedmaking which sets me up well for the next stage of Bible. As I say, it’s a well-established routine – a settled habit.

But imagine if it wasn’t. Think how much time would be wasted if each day began with a ritual interrogation of each decision. “Should I clean my teeth today? Surprisingly my mouth doesn’t feel too bad. Perhaps I could get away without doing them.” Or, “Why bother with making the bed today? We will only be sleeping in it again tonight.” Or, “Why read the Bible this morning? The set passage is from Leviticus – like that’s going to be inspiring!” By the time all the arguments have been made, my schedule could have been completed twice.

I guess it is only stating the obvious to note that while functional habits are functional, dysfunctional habits are – well – dysfunctional.

Some of the dysfunctional habits I have had to address over the years:

  • Checking what is in the fridge the moment I get home – just for interest of course (and then a few hundred calories later…)
  • Taking the routine for granted and forgetting to express gratitude for it. Actually it is wonderful that meals get made, washing gets done and we get to share life with one another. I am working at remembering to say thank you for things that I appreciate but have got into the habit of assuming I am simply entitled to. I am trying to remember to do this both in my prayer life as well as in interactions with others. Actually, I can’t take my health for granted, nor the gift of time with my wonderful wife and family, nor the stimulation of working with outstanding colleagues, nor the delight of the beautiful city in which I live. I am trying to more intentionally thank God for each, and to thank the people who make the “I take this for granted” part of my life possible.
  • Assuming its helpful to list all the things that went wrong at the last event and what we can do better next time – especially when it’s done before noting the many (many) things that went well. I have often not got the balance right between appreciation for what was and setting a helpful stretch for the next opportunity – and am trying to recalibrate my habitual focus on the next time round.

More constructively, here are 7 habits I am trying to cultivate:

  1. Moving from entitlement to appreciation. 1 Tim 6:7 reminds us that we bring nothing into the world. Actually, that’s not entirely true. We bring our great neediness into the world – our need for air, and food, and clothing and care. When those needs are met (as they almost always are) appreciation is the appropriate response. We did nothing to earn the nurture we have received. I am trying to make sure that my attitude is therefore one of appreciation, and not entitlement, indeed, I want an appreciative attitude to be a habit.
  2. Appreciating what is, rather than noting what isn’t. I have always been good at spotting ways things can be improved. If people ask how something could be made better, I usually manage a list than runs into double digits. It can be overwhelming and unhelpful. I am working at noting what’s right before I note what’s wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, it can be a real gift to help people see how things can be improved, but suggestions for improvement need to be from a place of deep appreciation for the effort and creativity that has already gone into making what is. I am working to be better at showing I realise how much has already gone in, and am trying to turn it into a habit.
  3. Verbalising my appreciation of others – rather than assuming they know it. I genuinely like and appreciate people, and find it easy to get on harmoniously with most. I am a little unusual in that I enjoy people who are different to me almost as much as I enjoy people who are very similar. I find the differences intriguing rather than threatening. The simple truth is that I do appreciate most people. I am a lot less good at letting them know that. The habit I want to cultivate is letting people know how much I value and appreciate them. Too often I assume they will pick it up (because I do, and I assume the truth will find its way out), but more recently I have realised I need to be more intentional in letting people know I value them.
  4. Moving from defensiveness to curiosity when people disagree with me. Now nobody enjoys a good debate more than I do – especially if the tone is pleasant and respectful (which doesn’t mean it can’t be witty, clever and playful). I love exploring different ideas, and even if I disagree about something, I like to make sure that I disagree with the actual view, rather than a caricature of it. I have long realised that facts are friends, and should be embraced, not run from. However, I have noticed that when people disagree with me with a negative or judgemental edge to their tone, I veer to defensiveness and start to close up. I am trying to work on a habitual posture of curiosity rather than defensiveness – being curious not just as to why the other person holds that view, but why they feel the need to be critical of me for holding a different one. If it turns out that I’ve been insensitive (and I have been there too often!) I am trying to learn from that, rather than to block it out.
  5. Giving more than I take. As a follower of Jesus, there is a sense in which this is impossible. Because I am part of the family of God, I have been given far, far more than I can ever give back. But it is precisely because of Jesus that I am rescued from the poverty mentality that assumes I must win every game and get more than I give. I am at the stage of life when I am very aware of how much I have been given, and I want to make giving back a more instinctive part of my activity. In other words, I am trying to make it a habit to ask if there is a way I could be an encouragement or a blessing to the person I am interacting with, rather than simply one of their quickly forgotten contacts.  
  6. Stopping for moments of mindfulness at least three times a day. I get very caught up in what I am doing, so much so that I often don’t notice what is happening around me. I am cultivating the habit of stopping for a few minutes each day to intentionally notice – who is in my orbit, what is happening, what I’ve been overlooking, how I am feeling, how others are feeling. I also ask the ever-important God question: Where is God right now and, in the light of my answer to that question, do I now need to do anything differently?
  7. Courageously living as though God exists. Those who know the work I have done in apologetics know that I argue that God probably exists, and that the Christian version of God is likely to be so close to accurate as makes little difference. I do think this is probable but acknowledge that 100% “nailed it” proofs cannot be given. I have chosen to live my life as though the Christian God exists and have never (not for even a fraction of a second) regretted this decision. But sometimes I have not had the courage to live completely in the light of this decision. I hold a little back – just in case. I want to get more fully into the habit of courageously living as though God exists – trusting God more fully and being unafraid to do what is right.

We live from our habits, and what is habitual happens over and over again. Because our habits form us, it’s wise to intentionally select the habits you want to foster. Why not name them and devise a plan on how to develop them. Without overstretching the point, why not make it a habit to work on your habits?

Feel free to share some habits you are striving to develop in the comments, and, if you think this post might help others, do share it and pass it along.

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by Darina Belonogova on Pexels.com

8 Comments

  1. Thanks Brain, a brilliant and helpful article! My habit I have been cultivating- a daily quiet time with God. Thanks! 🙂

    • That is one that will repay you (and all who are blessed to know you), over and over again.

      • Most important habit of them all I think. 🙂

  2. And …. Love this one you put down “Moving from defensiveness to curiosity when people disagree with me.”

  3. Wonderful Brian, such a gift to share what is routine and to deliberately consider how to improve oneself. A challenge and a stretch, thank you.

    • Enjoy the stretch Lynn. I always think of you as one of the people who remembers to express gratitude for the routine really well. Thank you for the huge encouragement you provide through doing that.

  4. Oh, I did laugh heartily at the fridge anecdote! So relatable for me. A general lack of mindfulness finds me with the fridge door open and no idea how, nor why I got there.
    Thanks for your blog Brian.
    Moving from entitlement to appreciation resonates with me.
    I will also use your primary teacher’s H A B I T lesson for the beginning of the year in my class. A great little lesson with a big message.

    THANK YOU
    Christine McI

    • Glad you enjoyed the fridge story. It’s one of those habits in the IT stage – still lingers there for unguarded moments.
      Very good to hear from you.

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