Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Dealing With Habits

One of my habits is to regularly write a post for this blog site. I am, after all, a mass of habits. I would like to think that my daily choices are the products of well-considered decision making, but as Charles Duhigg notes in his book, The Power of Habit, they are not. They are the result of patterns, many of which are ingrained and have become automatic over time.

Every Monday and Thursday I am on Highway 26 by 6:25 am, listening to Dan Patrick and the latest in sports news, with a tendency to stay in the right lane. I cross the Markham Bridge, take the 58th exit, drive south on SE 60th to Hawthorne Blvd, head for the seminary parking lot, and park in the same space at the same SE corner next to the same large tree. People are so used to this that some avoid parking in this spot on these two days.

I do this because, as with most routines, I don’t have to think so much. As I have observed in myself and others (particularly my kids!), the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. And that might be okay for driving to seminary, but some habits are not okay. There is this habit to search for something sweet each night around 8:00pm. Something has become encoded in my brain after years of foraging for that one treat to cap off the day. I am cued to look at an incoming email, even when I am in the middle of a complex project. The good news is that habits can be changed, and this is the central argument of his book. Every habit, no matter how multifaceted, is malleable (as opposed to rigid). But you must first know how they work.

I’ve never thought about how habits work until I read this book. Duhigg described it as a three step loop. First, there is a cue, a “trigger” (I’m in the right lane on 26). Then there is the routine (turn on 750 AM and drive with the flow). Finally, there is a reward which helps the brain figure out if this loop is worth remembering (I get to seminary in a safe and reasonable manner). This is why every MacDonald’s, be they in Amsterdam or Manila or Portland are standardized—a constant cue to trigger the same eating routines. This is why, each morning, on cue, my Wire Fox Terrier lunges at me to grab my hand as I leave. His routine is to try to snap at it as if to intimidate. His reward is some deep satisfaction that he has established alpha supremacy in our home (at least it seems like this is what is going on, but honestly, I have no idea if these neurological cravings are at work because most of the time this dog seems to register no real brain activity).

Part of the key to changing habits (e.g. snacking at work) is to keep the same cue and same reward. Duhigg refers to this as “The Golden Rule of Habit Change”—“You can’t extinguish a bad habit. You can only change it.” If snacking is a way of interrupting the boredom, find another routine to satisfy the cravings—a quick walk or a 3 minute break on the Internet. The key is to identify the cue that signals the habit, as well as the reward that drives all of this. It is also important to believe such change is possible (of course, it is also important to build a life of discipline and will power).

The Power of Habit also addresses corporate habits. And this is the most interesting part of the book. Over time, organizations create a set of institutional habits. It may appear Village Church is making rational choices, but many of them are simply patterns which have been established over a long period of time. This is true of every church. If you want to test this out, start asking why we do things (hand out worship bulletins, create non engaging learning environments, pass offering bags) and measure the degree of thought that is behind most of our routines. A few years ago, in my first church, convinced that worship by definition is a response to revelation, I shifted much of the music, prayer, offering, etc. to the other side of preaching. People were obviously put off by all of this. Some were even outraged that I had messed with set liturgical form. But no one stopped to ask why we did it the other way. It had simply become a habit—a bad one at that.

Some habits need to change (biting nails, drinking Diet Coke). Some habits need to be created (time in the Word, prayer, sharing our faith, eating wholesome meals, working out). The great news is that habits can be what you choose them to be, if you understand how they work—and if you know who you want to be.


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