Word Count: 1220
Estimated Reading Time: 9.4 minutes
“Repetition of the same thought or physical action develops into a habit which, repeated frequently enough, becomes an automatic reflex”- Norman Vincent Peale
How the Grass Died
When my wife Caroline and I moved to our first home, we only had on-street parking as our option. But, the distance from the curb to the front door seemed long especially when we had to carry heavy purchases from the car to the house. This desire to park closer to the house led to the decision to drive over the grass next to the walkway. As time went on this habit became easier to do. Eventually, we had created a “parking area.” The beautiful green grass gave way to a barren ground from our consistent driving over it.
This is how habits are formed. We develop a desire whether for convenience or preference which leads to a decision to act in a manner to satisfy the desire. Over time and with frequency we create a path or direction that we continue to use. This process of habit development creates a level of permanence in our brain as the repeated action turns automatic.
In today’s post, we will dig further into this process. By understanding habit formation, we can monitor our desires, manage our decisions, and forge better paths to our future.
Stage 1: Desires
In the instant classic book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg provided a powerful picture of why habits are irresistible. He calls it the habit loop. Figure 1 below expresses this concept.
Figure 1: Adapted from https://habitica.fandom.com/wiki/The_Habit_Loop
You probably recall a time when you had a craving for a certain food, usually, one that has sugar, salt, or flour (how come we never crave vegetables?). This is where the habit loop begins. The craving or desire is the cue. The routine is the action we take based on the cue. It’s the decision to eat candy, French fries, or cake. The reward is the return for the action we took. Usually, this satisfaction is short lived as we soon ask, “Why did I do that?” But a few days later we repeat the process seemingly in a state of amnesia from our previous regret. This repetitious cycle is proof positive to the power of habits in our lives. Credit card companies have applied this loop system by creating rewards and loyalty programs such as cash back to encourage our continued use of credit cards. Our desires are where it all begins.
Desires create suspense and tension between our current and intended state. They act as bridges with the potential of taking us to a better life. But crossing a bridge should be secondary to knowing where the bridge leads. And before we convert our desires to decisions we should inquire, “Where will this desire lead my life to?” This question helps us subscribe to acting on the right desires to see a future that aligns with our goals and purpose.
But desires can also act as bait, hooking us to a life of detriment and consequence that in hindsight we wish we never acted upon. The same question above also ensures that we don’t blindly act on desires that are illicit and can compromise our future.
By nature, all desires are attractive and enticing. This is what makes them difficult to discern. As they incubate and ruminate in our mind, we begin to set the wheels in motion that take us to the decision-making level of habit formation, “Do I act on this desire or not?”
Stage 2: Decision
One of the greatest abilities we have been given by God is decision making. We are products of our decisions, not necessarily our desires. As present and powerful as a desire may be, decision making is where desires are birthed into action. Albert Camus said, “Life is the sum of all your choices.” This is the best place to stifle bad desires with good decisions and employ good desires with aligning decisions. You cannot stop the birds from flying over your head (desires) but you can keep them from making a nest on your head (decisions).
A choice is powerful when used correctly. But if misappropriated, today’s choices can become tomorrow’s chains as someone once put it. Decisions will help you start, stop, or continue good or bad habits. For example, deciding to start an exercise program when you have a strong desire to binge-watch is a way to use the power of choice to reinforce healthy habits. Choosing to give a one-week grace period before pressing “place your order” on items in your Amazon cart, can stop impulsive buying and instill delayed gratification. Most of the time you find out that what you wanted was not really what you needed, and you can do without it. Deciding to continue believing that good relationships are possible even in light of betrayal, a break-up, or rejection can keep at bay the desire to conclude that all people are bad and not engage in fostering healthy relationships.
Ultimately, the decisions we make, not the desires we have, determine the direction we take.
Stage 3: Direction
Habit formation leads to habit automation. Your brain is energy efficient. It is always looking to perform tasks as effortlessly and efficiently as possible. This is why the path of least resistance is hard to overcome. Streaming services have latched onto this idea. The more automated the viewing experiencing the more prone we are to consume more content. The goal is to create a laissez-faire experience that keeps us glued to our screens for hours. As the level of convenience increases so does the rate of use. In this case, binge-watching is the result. Other times the consequences of direction can be steeper where early detection is absent.
Taking an exit while driving our Pastor to the airport, she mentioned that we were going the wrong way. Priding myself on being right due to my years of driving experience, I shrugged off her advice. Maintaining good speed, I was sure we would be at our destination in good time. Little did I know, I was making good time, in the wrong direction. A few more minutes later after silent reflection, the light bulb came on. I made my apologies, took the next off-ramp, turned around, and headed in the right direction. Without this change of direction, our pastor would have missed her flight and my driving privileges revoked!
Focusing on time, while overlooking direction is the fastest way to a life of frustration and regret. This is why reflection plays a pivotal role in our habit formation. Through reflection, course corrections are possible. And as Andy Stanley says, “Direction, not intention, determines destination.”
Final Thought: Just as we learn by repetition and develop muscle through reps, so do habits form and automate through repetition. The good news is we can break bad habits and replace them with good ones because the power of choice is still ours to harness. Next week, we will delve into the how-to of breaking bad habits and building good ones. I will also share a testimonial from a friend on how the habit of excellence has improved his quality of life.
The pathway to a better future passes through better habits, and it is within your reach.
Keep on Keeping on!