BookRemarks are not book reviews, but topical posts inspired by books. This post was inspired primarily by James Clear’s Atomic Habits.
Last time, we discussed how to lay a firm foundation for building a new habit – and, particularly, a new spiritual discipline. We’re using the example of reading our Bible every day (but you can choose a different habit to begin).
In Atomic Habits, James Clear discusses Four Laws of Behavior Change. In order to develop a new habit, we should:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
Let’s consider these characteristics one-by-one, and highlight some of the most effective tactics in each step for developing a new habit.
Make it Obvious
There are several tactics we can use to make our new spiritual discipline more “obvious.”
Identify current habits
The first thing Clear says we should do is to become more aware of our current behaviors and habits. If we want to start reading our Bible in the morning, what do we currently do in the mornings?
We should list all the elements of our morning routine – everything from turning off the alarm to making a cup of coffee, from taking a shower to putting on deodorant.
Clear suggests we label each action as positive (+), negative (–), or neutral (=). We will be able to use our good and neutral habits later, and we can identify negative habits we might want to eliminate.
For example, if we scroll through the social media feeds on our phones for twenty minutes in the morning, we have probably identified an opportunity to free up at least ten minutes for reading our Bible.
Create a specific plan
Next, we need to develop a specific plan for implementing our new habit. A vague goal is not very helpful: “I want to read my Bible more often.”
Instead, we should use this formula:
I will [Behavior] at [Time] in [Location].
We might say, “I will read my Bible for five minutes at 6 a.m. at my desk.”
This simple formula can be very effective. In a 2001 study on getting people to exercise more, researchers put people into three groups:
- Group 1 was asked to track how often they exercised
- Group 2 listened to a motivational speech on the benefits of exercise, and were asked to track how often they exercised
- Group 3 listened to a motivational speech on the benefits of exercise, were asked to track how often they exercised, and they were asked to complete a statement of intent (like the one above, identifying Behavior, Time, Location)
Clear sums up the results: “In the first and second groups, 35 to 38 percent of people exercised at least once per week…. But 91 percent of the third group exercised at least once per week” (pages 69-70).
Simply put, creating a specific plan greatly increases our chances of following through on practicing our new spiritual discipline.
Stack your habits
Remember that list of morning habits we made earlier? Let’s put it to work by using a tactic Clear calls “habit stacking.” That is, we should attach the new habit we want to develop to a habit that we already do regularly.
So, for example, we might say, “After pouring my cup of coffee in the morning at 6 a.m., I will read my Bible for five minutes at my desk.”
Perhaps the best part of waking up will be communing with God while enjoying the Folger’s in our cup.
Design your environment
Clear’s final recommendation for making a habit obvious is to design our environment so that it draws our attention to the habit we want to develop – and away from things that would inhibit that habit.
For example, each morning when we finish reading our Bible, we might put it next to the coffee maker. When we go to get our cup of coffee the next morning – boom. We see our Bible. We can then take it and our cup of coffee over to our desk.
We might even call our new morning routine “Java with Jesus.”
The Bible acknowledges the impact environment can have on our behavior. Paul instructs us to flee temptations, such as sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18), the evil desires of youth (2 Timothy 2:22), idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14), and things like false doctrines and the love of money (1 Timothy 6:3-11).
In other words, we shouldn’t even be around the types of things we know shouldn’t do; we should avoid them, keep them out of our environment entirely. Instead, we should prime our environment to point us toward the things we know we should do – such as putting our Bible someplace where we know we will see it.
Make it Attractive
After making our desired new habit more obvious, the next thing we need to do is make it more attractive – that is, we need to make it something we want to do. There are several tactics that can help us do this.
Join the like-minded
One key way to make a habit more attractive is to join a group in which our desired behavior is considered the norm. In other words, who are our friends?
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn once claimed, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Studies have largely supported this claim, indicating that we are more likely to smoke, drink, become obese, and do other things if we hang out with people who smoke, drink, are obese, or whatever.
Similarly, if we hang out with people who exercise, eat healthfully, and save for the future, we’re more likely to do those things. So, if we want to walk more, we should hang out with people who like to walk.
The Bible also supports the idea that we become like those we hang out with; Proverbs says, “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (13:20).
This is one of the many reasons we should be active in a local church – when we surround ourselves with Christians, it is easier to think and act like a Christian. We’re influenced by their behavior, their ways of thinking, and their faith.
Remember, the writer of Hebrews encourages us to gather together so that we can “encourage one another” (10:25).
In a church community, we can find others who have similar goals and we can become accountability partners for one another. We can find out how other people have overcome the struggles we face, and learn from their experiences. We can also find a mentor who can offer us guidance and advice.
The right community will help us become the person God wants us to be.
Create a ritual
Many athletes have a pregame ritual that helps them “get in the zone.” It might include eating a particular meal, listening to a certain song or playlist, or doing the same warm-up routine game after game, year after year.
Since Paul often compared living the Christian life to athletic competitions – for example, 1 Corinthians 9:24, 1 Timothy 4:7-8, 2 Timothy 2:5, 4:7 – it would seem Christians could learn much from athletes.
To build off the morning routine we considered earlier – wake up, get coffee, read the Bible – perhaps we could create a routine that helps us get into a godly frame of mind.
Perhaps we could set our alarm to play our favorite worship song. Instead of turning it off as soon as we awake, we could allow it to continue playing as we walk into the kitchen to make our morning coffee. We could even sing along.
After starting the coffee maker, we could say a quick prayer to ask God to teach us something as we read His word. Once the coffee maker has finished our cup, we can take it and our Bible over to our desk, take the first sip, and turn off the worship music.
After reading the passage for the day, we might set a timer for 10 minutes, then start writing down our thoughts and ideas on the passage until the timer goes off. Finally, we could say a short prayer and ask God to help us remember to meditate on His word throughout the day.
There are about fifteen different actions in this morning sequence, and about ten of them occur before we even read our Bible. Things like listening to, and singing along with, a worship song could help us get in the proper mindset to read God’s word.
Next time, we will look at James Clear’s other two laws of Behavior Change: Make It Easy and Make It Satisfying.
What morning activities could you incorporate into a “ritual” to help you begin your new spiritual discipline? Let us know in the comments below…