In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear says that it’s habits which make us the people we are, and the people we want to be. Goals, he proposes, once achieved, can actually cause a reduction in the type of behaviour we want to have, whereas habits are a continuous behaviour which we can continue to build on.
As a creative person, I’m better at coming up with ideas than doing things consistently, and I’ve developed ways of working this to my advantage. However, this book inspired me to look again at habits I’ve wanted to form but have found difficult. I’m working on applying James' strategies to improve habits in all sorts of areas of life, including how I can make forming healthy habits easier for my children. I thought I would share some of my thoughts and particularly how they might apply to faith at home habits.
Before getting into his strategies, James address a deeper issue: identity. He says that identity-based goals and habits are far more useful and far more likely to stick. He uses the example of someone giving up smoking who declines the offer of a cigarette. They could say: “No thank you, I’m giving up.” True, but not as powerful as: “No thank you, I don’t smoke.” The second response reflects the identity they wish to inhabit. James suggests we think about the sort of people we want to be then develop small habits which move us in that direction.
I think this is really interesting when planning faith at home habits. It helps to be specific in what sort of a person I am wanting to grow into. You could start with Bible verses such as the fruit of the Spirit or “Be holy because I am holy”, then get more specific in what that will look like in attitude, words and behaviours.
James says that, much as we would like to believe habits are a result of our inner motivation and grit, our ability to stick to them is heavily influenced by our environment. His solution for this is to be an environment engineer, ie to choose to be in and to create environments which lean towards the habits we want to develop. For example, if you want to be fit, hang out with people who work out regularly in the park.
For faith at home this is a fun idea – how can we engineer the environment of our home to help us develop faith at home habits? This could be about where our Bibles live (next to your bed, your comfy chair, your meal table) or arranging our schedule so that there is a natural pause in the week for us to stop and give thanks for all the good things God has done.
Our goals in adapting our environment become more focused when looking at what James calls his four ‘rules’ for forming good habits, based on the science of how habits (good and bad) develop:
- Make them obvious – create a cue.
- Make them attractive – create desire.
- Make them easy – make them accessible.
- Make them satisfying – create a positive feedback loop.
He suggests that if we are setting up a new habit or struggling to establish a habit, we should look at each of these and see which one we can tweak to give us more success.
Next to food, some of my faith at home habits are probably the most well-established habits I have. (In fact, when I look at them, most of my faith at home habits involve food in some way!) Our weekly Shabbat meal and annual celebrations (eg Advent, Passover, baptism birthdays) are things we would never miss. There’s something about the regularity of each celebration which builds each time we do it, adding another layer of meaning and memories on top of the previous ones.
Each celebration is obvious, in that it has a clear time when it is to be celebrated: baptism birthdays have their own day in the year, Advent starts four weeks before Christmas, Passover happens at a moving but designated date each year. This means the celebrations are marked in the calendars months ahead and are clear to all members of the family when they will happen.
I thought I’d look at this in establishing a more formal moment of daily Bible reading and prayer. For many people, this is a daily habit, but if you, like me, would like to be more consistent in reading the Bible each day, here’s what I discovered when I’ve applied James' four rules to see where there might be blockages.
The first thing I noticed was that I was trying to read my Bible using one of the many great apps designed for this purpose. However, as soon as I picked up my phone I opened a different app, and disappeared into a rabbit hole of social media, only to surface a long time later to find my window of time for Bible reading had vanished. In Atomic Habits, it suggests using the four ‘laws’ in reverse when trying to break a bad habit, so since being distracted was too easy, I made it difficult by removing my phone from the equation – I now don’t touch my phone until I’ve finished.
The second thing I did was to make it easier and more attractive by purchasing a beautiful hardback book to use. I chose the Celtic Daily Prayer as it had been recommended by various friends, and I was delighted to discover that as well as having content which works for me, it is a quality book which makes the habit of using it very attractive to me. The content makes it easy to use, giving me regular prayers and a system of Bible verses to read each day. I don’t have to work out what to read, it’s just there and so I can just jump straight in.
Atomic Habits talks about our environment being a much stronger influence on our behaviour than we imagine – eating the same amount of food as friends, using similar language to people we spend time with etc. He says we should use this to our advantage by becoming our own environment engineers. I did this by creating a calm, quiet, beautiful corner in my home with a comfy chair and table where I could leave my Bible and prayer book and a pen. This again leverages the factors of making it easy and attractive.
The last thing I did was to make myself a way of remembering and recording my reading and prayer. I created a simple folded book from an A4 sheet of paper and wrote on the first page: “Today I read…”, “I prayed for…”
Each day I fill this in with whatever I choose, sometimes writing a few words about the theme or the Bible references, and noting the names of the people I hold in prayer with God. The folded paper book has eight sides, so once I’ve written ‘Victoria’s morning time’ on the cover, it leaves me with seven little pages for each week. So very satisfying!
A friend of mine was doing a similar thing a few months ago, and she chose a system which gave her huge chunks of the Bible to read every day and a print out to tick once she’d completed her reading. She found reading such enormous sections of scripture hugely satisfying, and for the first time found herself waking up and looking forward to her Bible reading, which gave her the impetus to make the extra 30 minutes each day in her morning schedule.
Her system also allowed for not managing it every day by giving a ‘catch up’ day once a week. It’s important when we’re developing new habits to give ourselves grace, and to strike the right balance of turning up each time and making a way to quickly reboot when we miss one. Berating ourselves for being rubbish when we miss one time means we feel bad, and therefore less likely to restart. Giving ourselves grace to get it wrong allows us to grow the habit of restarting a habit, something which will help us develop habits all our life long. When doing this with children watching, it’s really helpful for them to see us ‘fail’, and restart as this is a crucial skill for them too!
What habit might you work on developing to enhance your faith at home? Which of the rules would be helpful to use to make the habit stick easily?