Force of Habit


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May 11, 2016
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A friend and I were chatting in late December about goals for the new year. She commented in an e-mail, “I’ve been itching to talk about resolutions and goals and habits, but was lacking in interested persons. I asked a few people at church, ‘Do you enjoy making New Year’s Resolutions?’ just to start off some fun conversations. Every single person I asked said that they never make resolutions or even enjoy thinking of such goals.”

That friend’s husband has a standard facetious response when asked about resolutions and goals: “I resolve to maintain mediocrity.”

To some extent I understand these responses. New Year’s resolutions are notorious for being broken and then abandoned. Change is difficult. A resolution—‘a definite and serious decision to do something’—implies the use of willpower to accomplish something. It is taxing to attempt behavior change using a continual exercise of willpower.

Still, behavior change and reaching a goal are both possible and desirable, especially if we harness the power of habits. We often think first of bad habits—those consistent behaviors that we repeat but wish we could stop. But good habits have as much potential to positively impact our lives as bad habits have to derail us.

A habit is something you do regularly and repeatedly, until it hopefully becomes involuntary. Habits can be built slowly, and become easier over time. Though willpower is initially required, as a habit becomes established it requires less and less willpower.

The goal of both resolutions and habits is behavior change. But many resolutions include a short-term goal and have an ‘all or nothing’ feel about them—either you follow through or you don’t. By contrast, habits can be a means to step-by-step, long-term change.

Gretchen Rubin’s book Better than Before is all about habits. Early in her book, Rubin says that up to 40% of our daily actions are the result of habits. Unexamined habits may have positive or negative impacts on my quality of life. Identifying and evaluating habits is one way of being intentional. Am I living in a way that is consistent with my deepest values?

One classic way to identify daily habits is to keep a time log. For 24 hours (or ideally for several days in a row), keep track of how you spend your time. If you’re honest about the record keeping, there are bound to be some surprises. For example, it’s easy to unconsciously spend an enormous amount of time on Facebook or other kinds of social media.

Once you have a record of how you tend to spend your time, you’ll also see where change would be most beneficial. Personally, I have slowly but surely been establishing habits around sleeping, eating and exercise, which are key contributors to physical health and overall wellbeing. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading and tithing are other habits I cherish.

Many motivational speakers and writers encourage people to set SMART goals when they want to change (SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time-bound). Those can be helpful when trying to meet a very particular goal, such as running in a road race. Setting this kind of goal is often a means to an end; as you put in the training miles (the ‘means’), you’ll likely get more fit (the ‘end’).

The problem I find is that, once I have met a concrete goal, I can’t always carry on momentum. For the past several years, I ran a 10K in the fall. The race is always the first weekend of November, the same weekend that the time changes, making the afternoons get dark an hour earlier. With the cold of November, the newly early nightfall, and the sudden removal of a running goal, I consistently quit running after the race—and often don’t pick it up again until spring!

Last year I realized that, with increased physical activity as my end goal, I could instead set a smaller daily goal, and then develop a habit of meeting that goal. A Fitbit helps keep me accountable. 10,000 steps is the default setting, and one I’ve seen widely recommended as a daily minimum for physical activity, so that is now my daily goal. Running definitely helps me meet the daily step goal, but is not a prerequisite.

Trying to establish and maintain habits gets tricky in the day-to-day. I remind myself sometimes that (paraphrasing Scripture) habits are meant to serve me, rather than the other way around. The people in my life, especially my husband and kids, are more important than my agenda—even when my main reason for establishing well-being habits is for their sake. There are evenings when it makes more sense to skip the treadmill and read a book with my kids.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, some things I really desire as habits have little to do with being productive and getting things done. Just the opposite, actually; they have to do with slowing down, being present, stopping. These include: making time to read; keeping a gratitude log; spending a few minutes daily one-on-one with each of my kids.

A little chart in my notebook helps keep my habit goals in front of me. Various apps can also be used to track habits, but I am an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of person. Seeing my list helps remind me of my priorities. (I’m pretty sure I’d forget to breathe sometimes if my body didn’t take care of that automatically!)

Making a resolution may seem futile, especially if you’ve made one before and failed to keep it. Consider working to establish a new habit instead. Habits can start as small as you’d like, and can be built upon. If you’d like to learn more about the power of habits, I recommend the books The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin. Read or listen to one, and pick a habit to build. You have nothing to lose, and much to gain!

About the Author
  • Dawn Berkelaar lives in southern Ontario with her husband Edward and their four children. She is a scientist, editor, writer, teacher and home maker.

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