Our habits drive the car that determines our direction on the road of life. We can facilitate a happy and healthy life by creating good habits. or we can create a stressful, painful, and exhausting life with bad ones.
We are creatures of habit. Much of what we do daily is done out of habit. According to researchers at Duke University, 40% of our daily behavior comes from habit. The easiest habits to create and maintain are the ones reinforced by comfort, instant-gratification, ease, and pleasure. Unfortunately, those are the habits that are steering you straight for the ditch on that road of life I mentioned. I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a person on earth who doesn’t struggle with breaking bad habits and cultivating new, good habits.
Mindful and intentional living explained
Habits are part of our auto-pilot state. We all have an auto-pilot state that we’ve created to coast through our days a little easier. It’s like cruise control and it’s not bad. Unless you’re set at a reckless speed or pointed in the wrong direction and paying no attention. Intentional living is turning off the cruise control long enough to course correct. And knowing you might have to do it over and over again to stay on the road to where you want to go.
I know intentional and mindful living sound a little hippie-dippy and some of you might not be into that sort of thing. These things are major secular crazes right now, but they have always been at the root of Eastern culture and…wait for it — ancient biblical principle. I want to challenge you to think about your mind. It’s wild to me that so many Christians think that a focus on mindful living is not Godly. Hello, God made your mind too. Do you think He intended for you to use it?
Dr. Caroline leaf, a Christian cognitive neuroscientist, describes the current craze as science finally catching up with the bible.
Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.” So where am I going with this?
Our thoughts create our habits and our habits create our lives.
If you want to go deeper into Dr. Leaf’s brain studies and how to use the mind that God gave you, you can read her fascinating book, Switch On Your Brain.
Where to start
The place to start is always with God. If there is something wrong on the surface of our lives, the answer will always be found below the surface. Everything begins and ends with where our hearts and minds are set.
We can try to think and act our way out of anything we want on our own, but it’s all futile. God is the change-maker. Just like Philippians 4:8 says to focus on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable — anything of moral excellence and praiseworthy. Meditate on those things. Meditate on God, the embodiment of those things. The reason our change starts with where we focus is because, again, our thoughts create our habits and our habits create our lives.
Our thoughts are a direct result of where our hearts and minds are focused. Ask God to lead you through the change that you need to make in your life. No matter how small and seemingly insignificant our habits are, they have an impact on our lives. Every way we live out our lives matters– in health, work, relationships, spirituality — they all have biblical implications. You can ask God for guidance and help with any and all habits you feel like you need to change or create.
Why focus matters in habit changing
The focus of your heart will determine the quality of our “why”. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve placed a lot of importance on unimportant things in my life because my heart was focused on all the wrong things. That left me overwhelmed and unsuccessful in changing habits. Without a meaningful “why,” you’re unlikely to stay committed to the change.
Practical ways to change habits
The Holy Spirit will lead us through a process of change and growth, but we can absolutely stay stuck if we don’t participate in that process. Having our hearts in the right place is just the first step. Now you might be thinking that the little habits you want to change, like drinking more water or exercising regularly, are probably not going to fall under the process of sanctification by the Holy Spirit. I’ve got news for you — the good Lord might not float a glass of water across the room and pour it down your throat, but He will teach you discipline and that’s the same thing.
The Holy Spirit helps you deal with the real problems behind your bad habits. The application is up to you. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “you have to put legs on your prayers.” First you get your heart in the right place, then you’ll have the right goals, then you pray for help with your goals, then you set out to do the things within your control to make those things happen.
The hands-on, practical application
Now that you have your goals and your good quality “why,” it’s time to put it all in motion. You’ll need to:
- Want it (that’s your strong “why”)
- Believe it’s possible for you
- Decide how to do it
- Take action
- Reward yourself for your actions
Believe it’s possible for you
Changing our behavior is really pretty simple theoretically. Theoretically, I can solve pretty much anything for myself or for you. We can all talk about change very easily. Action isn’t always as easy. A lot of times that is because we don’t have a very good reputation…with ourselves. Think about how you talk to yourself when you consider changing a behavior. Do you have a can-do attitude or does it feel overwhelming? Have you let yourself down in the past? If you don’t believe that change is possible for you, then you won’t be able to change. So that’s your next step.
If you don’t have a great track record of sticking to things you set out to do, it’s time to prove yourself wrong. You have to start somewhere. Start small and don’t give in this time. Think about what you value most over what you want now. Pray about that and meditate on how God can help you. As you start to see changes come from discipline, the bigger goals will begin to seem less ominous.
Decide how to do it and take action
I’m a planner. Planning literally anything gives me joy. Grocery lists to vacations to business plans to events. I love it. So much so that I sometimes get so invested in the planning process that I never take action. I like preparing to take action, that’s where I get stuck. You might think you have more to figure out before you start. But trust me and don’t be afraid to take messy action. A great life is created from messy action. We are learning and growing all the time, we will never be completely ready for anything!
Since you have the deep stuff (your “why”) down, all you need to do is write down your goals, get started, and track your progress. I created this monthly tracker because this is my favorite way to track my habit changes. I’ve used a similar trackers before but they were in planners and I wanted a separate sheet that I could reprint month after month, as many times as I wanted to.
No matter how you want to track your habit change, I suggest you track your mood too. There’s typically a direct correlation between the way you feel and the action you do or do not take. That won’t change until you learn discipline in your behavior. You have to learn to recognize how your mood impacts your behavior and how your behavior impacts your mood. Tracking both helps you to be mindful of exactly what’s going on with you and allows you to take more control of that car we talked about earlier.
Reward yourself for your actions
This is important so listen up. You have to detach yourself from the outcome. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out. The trust and reputation we need build with ourselves does not actually come from the results. Results help, obviously, but we won’t always succeed, even when we really try. If your self-worth and happiness are attached to results, you’ll stay stuck in a cycle of bad habits.
Your reputation with yourself is built in the trenches, not on the mountain top. Did you do your best? Did you take the steps necessary, even when you didn’t want to? What you do on the journey is what adds to or takes away from your self-worth and happiness. Reward yourself as you take steps toward your behavior change. Tell yourself you’re overcoming in a big way with every small step you take. The change you’re looking for is in every single small step which means every single small step matters.
Remember to live intentionally
Now you have your why, your plan, you’re ready to take action, and you’re going to reward yourself along the way. But remember it’s really easy to slip back into cruise control and end up heading the wrong way, fast. If you don’t question every thought and every decision then you’re going to get off course. In order to question every thought and decision you have to be mindful. Meditate daily (Phil 4:8) because what you focus on is the foundation for all behavior change, or lack thereof.