Eating is a habit. Eating poorly is a habit, but eating healthy is a habit too. Choose your habits carefully, because they determine your life. On Sunday, my friend Robert gets up, puts on a suit, eats breakfast, and goes to church. Afterwards, he and his family have lunch together. He’s been doing that his whole life and I predict he will do it all of his life, because it’s a habit and something he loves to do. Even when he doesn’t want to do it, maybe because he’s tired, or would rather do something else, or is in a bad mood, he does it anyway. Because it’s a habit.
Habits are the single most important thing in life. Practically everything we do in life is a habit, good or bad! Our habits determine our destiny.
As we all know, habits, like drinking, social media, saving money, reading, studying, looking at pornography, shopping, lying, and yes exercise and so on, can be really good or they can be really bad. Habits determine who we are as people. The amazing things about habits is that if we can only form good habits, that make us better people, we will actually start to change as people.
• People who aren’t very generous can become generous by taking repeated generous action and even start to enjoy it.
• People who don’t like vegetables can start to eat small amounts and then over time actually start to like them.
• People who are naturally a little lazy and don’t like to move much, if they start to make themselves move, can learn to habitually exercise and even get to a point where they love it and do it every day.
There are many other examples of how positive habits form. In my own life, I always believed in God, but never prayed much, except in emergencies. But deep down I always wanted to and I admired people who did. Then I read some writing from an Orthodox monk that prayer was a virtue- like courage, prudence, or justice, that could be developed over time with effort. This piqued my interest and motivated me to want to do this because things that require discipline, effort, and strength appeal to me. So I started using written prayers like the Psalms, which a friend recommended, prayer books like the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and memorization to develop the virtue within myself. I’ve got a long way to go, but this approach has helped me to become a “person of prayer” in the sense that I am now doing it, habitually, every morning and evening, and throughout the day. I’m not perfect of course, not virtue-signaling, and I want to do better, I’m just showing you how habits work in this example.
Do what you want to do, even when you don’t want to do it, and eventually you’ll want to do it and you’ll do it automatically. Do things repeatedly until they become a habit and you can’t not do them.
Habits are so important that I wrote about them in my first book, Movement & Meaning: Managing Stress and Building Mental Strength through Exercise. This is an excerpt:
Creatures of Habit
Humans are creatures of habit, much more than we realize. For example, when we learn something, such as the route to get to work, how to tie our shoes, or how to ride a bike, a habit loop is formed in the brain and we don’t really have to “think” about these routine actions anymore—they become second nature. Engrained habit loops free up the rest of the brain to reason, process information, engage in critical thinking, and to work on more complex tasks.
Humans are able to walk upright because our brains have become very efficient at creating these habit loops in the brain for repetitive tasks. If the brain needed a lot of computing space to process things we do every day like driving, brushing our teeth, or making our bed, our heads would be so big we wouldn’t be able to walk upright. This phenomenon explains why bad habits, such as drug addictions, which have become ingrained as memory loops in the brain and function like computer programs, are very hard to break. Repeated often enough, we physically wire ourselves for addiction through habits.13 51
Charles Duhigg describes in his fascinating 2012 book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, how AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) became the most popular and effective form of drug treatment in the world. AA began as a movement modeled after first-century Christianity when a group of people who had alcohol problems started getting together for regular Christian-based religious meetings. Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, took the group concept and moved it away from religion and solely towards helping people with substance abuse, while keeping the spiritual emphasis. Wilson himself claimed to have given up alcohol with the help of the group and so he recruited others to join and then AA exploded from there.
Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, reveals how AA, with no initial scientific basis, has helped thousands of people overcome addiction by implanting new life-changing habits and beliefs in place of substance abuse. AA participants gain the confidence that they can change and replace their old habits with new ones. By attending AA, participants are taking action consistently, habitually, and ritually, changing their life by creating a new one. 51
Alcoholics have triggers which bring on an insatiable desire to drink and eventually they give in and gain the reward, which could be an emotional release, a social connection, or one of a variety of other things. These “rewards” then reinforce the addictive behavior and this pattern continues between trigger and reward unless the downward spiraling cycle is broken. With alcohol or drug addiction, the substance itself takes on a person-like reality and binds itself to the addict and the two unite to create a new “person”, just like in a marriage. This intimate union, no matter how negative, is hard to break away from just like any destructive relationship. AA intercedes to replace this addictive habit loop with a healthy feedback system of meetings and emotionally bonded relationships in which the meetings replace the ritual of drinking and the relationships provide the emotional rewards.
We really are creatures of habit, even more than we realize. Our habits are our life because they are largely unconscious. A key component to managing stress and building mental strength is to replace bad habits with healthy and life-affirming new ones.
Briefly, be careful what habits you develop. They can ruin your life. I had a bad habit of binge drinking like many college students, and it took a long time to get over that. It was action, reward, and habit. Many lives have ended because of bad habits. This is what happens:
Action > Reward > Habit
Drink > Temporary Stress Relief (But also poor decisions and poor health) > Habit
If you want to start a new habit then don’t forget the reward! This is how you develop a habit:
Take the Desired Action Whether You Want to or Not >
Reward Yourself in Some Way for Doing It >
A Positive Habit will Develop in Time
Desired 30 minutes of Exercise (Action) >
Club Soda with Lime on Ice (Reward) >
Physiological Drug-Like Effect of Both the Reward Drink and the Exercise (Habit)
Remember two important things:
1) Your habits determine your life.
2) You can develop new habits.