My family bought a piece of land in the Piney Woods of East Texas back in 1987. Since it was a fully wooded property, they set about the difficult and dangerous work of clearing the land to make a place for our home. We never did lay a permanent driveway, so we just drove on the same patch of land at the edge of the property until two ruts formed.
Whenever I think of habits, I think of those two ruts, those ruts that grew so deep in the spring rains. Habits are the ruts of the mind. For good or bad, we do something over and over again and it becomes almost involuntary and impossible to break. To break a habit, you have to get out of the rut–a task that varies in degrees of difficulty according to how deep, how engrained the habit.
Over time, I’ve made changes of varying intensity. Like getting sober on my 21st birthday. Quitting smoking. Quitting dating. Becoming Christian. Becoming vegetarian. Becoming a runner. It’s the process of changing habits that first drew me to the discipline of spiritual formation. Our habits, among other things, make us who we are, and changing our habits means changing who we are.
I know how hard it is to change. I know how deep those ruts get. I know how hopeless it feels when you keep going down those same tracks, doing the same thing, over and over again. You’re stuck and there doesn’t seem to be a way out.
But changing habits isn’t impossible. It’s difficult, but not impossible. That’s a distinction that’s important to make. You have to believe that change is possible. You have to know it’s possible to change. Psychologists define hope as a combination of agency and pathway. “Agency” is your ability to act and “pathway” is the way to get where you’re going. Find your agency, then follow this pathway:
Admit you have issues. The first step is admitting you have issues. Admit there’s a problem with the way you’re conducting your life. If you don’t do this, you’ve given yourself no reason to change. Are you depending a little too much on that 5 ‘o clock glass of wine? Visiting websites that have a negative impact on your marriage? Maybe bad habits aren’t your problem–just lack of good ones. Are you overweight and inactive? Missing church too often? Not practicing the spiritual disciplines? What? What’s wrong and what needs to change?
Stop blaming others. Sometimes we excuse our bad behavior by blaming it on others. “If only my husband would get on board with eating better, I’d lose weight.” When you have an external locus of control, you believe that external forces–like other people, our circumstances, luck, chance, or fate–control your life and your decisions. To change, you need to move that locus of control inward by realizing that ultimately, you have a choice on how to live and how to respond to your circumstances.
Find the root. Bad habits are often a wrong response to a right desire. We drink to much to dull our senses, to cope with life’s uncertainties and difficulties. Life is hard. It’s painful, and substances remove us from that pain. It’s not wrong to desire a life free from pain, but the answer isn’t smothering the pain in substance, but working through it and bringing it to God. When you find the root desire, you’ll find a better way to answer that desire.
Get community. Nobody can do change alone. Get a mentor, a support group, or a friend to walk with you or behind you. Getting a community behind you will give you strength in weak moments, reminding you of why you’re making the change in the first place. It provides accountability to keep on the right track. My husband, the therapist, has been working with groups of men struggling with sexual integrity. Every week, they meet to talk through their struggle to walk with sexual integrity. Some of these groups have met for years.
Make a plan–set goals. This year I’ve been working on my next book–a book on the classical virtues. Among other things, I’m giving the virtues a “practice run”, and for the virtue of diligence, I’ve decided to run every day for a year. I’ve wanted to become a better runner for awhile, so this provided a perfect opportunity. I set daily goals, weekly goals, and the goals for the year–usually centered on pace or distance. When I quit smoking, I quit gradually. I first stopped smoking in my college apartment, then in front of others, then in the car, until finally I was hardly smoking at all. Plans make change manageable by helping us stay on track and goals keep us motivated.
Get your mind right. Habits are part of who we are, and changing those habits means changing who we are. I often tell people struggling with bad habits to think like a person who doesn’t have that habit. Think more like the kind of person you want to become. If you’re trying to develop more patience, how would a more patient person respond to the situations that currently make you so frustrated and impatient?
Be resilient. Change is hard, but not impossible. If you fail, mess up, fall back, don’t give up. Don’t go back. Fortify your resolve.