BookRemarks are not book reviews, but topical posts inspired by books. This post was inspired primarily by James Clear’s Atomic Habits.
In Part 1 of this series, we discussed how to lay a firm foundation for building a new habit – and, particularly, a new spiritual discipline.
Last time, we looked at the first two of Laws of Behavior Change, as discussed in Atomic Habits by James Clear: Make It Obvious, and Make It Attractive.
Today, we’ll look at the final two laws, Make It Easy and Make It Satisfying.
Make it Easy
One of the most important elements of starting a new habit is to make it easy; if something is difficult, we simply won’t maintain it. Life will get in the way. We can use the tactics below to make it easy to practice our new spiritual discipline.
Two great ways to reduce friction – that is, to make it easier to do our new habit – is to plan ahead and design the environment.
Say we want to be a more encouraging person, but we find that it takes time and effort.
We can plan ahead by buying packs of cards for various occasions and keeping them by our desk. Now, we don’t have to make the effort to go buy a card every single time we want to send someone an encouraging word – we can just reach over and pick a card from our pre-sorted collection. (Clear’s wife uses this technique.)
Actually, when we buy those cards, let’s also buy a booklet of stamps and put them beside the cards. Then we can just put the stamped card in our mailbox as we leave for work in the morning.
Last time, we talked about designing our environment, and that is one of the best ways to reduce friction. Remember how we put our Bible beside the coffee maker so that we would see it every morning? That is priming our environment to reduce friction.
What are the points of “friction” that make our new habit more difficult to develop? Are our mornings too hectic? Perhaps we can save time by doing some things – like packing our lunch – the night before. By doing some things the night before, we should be able to free up ten minutes in the morning for reading our Bible.
How easy is that?
Set a timer
For some habits, we should give ourselves a time limit. Two spiritual disciplines that work really well together are reading the Bible and journaling. But when we first start journaling, we might find that we have a lot to say. In fact, we might write for 30 minutes or more.
Soon, we realize that we can’t really spare 30-45 minutes every day, so we end up not journaling at all. In that case, we might set a 5, 10, or 15-minute time limit for our journaling. It is much better to record a few thoughts per day than none at all.
Knowing there is a time limit to how long our new habit can take can make it easier for us to commit to it.
Scale-up your habit
Sometimes, we find that starting a new habit is too difficult because we’re making such a radical, sudden change. In that case, we might try starting small and scaling up.
For example, if we would have to get up an hour earlier to read our Bible in the morning, then we might follow Clear’s advice on how to become an early riser. We can do this by working in phases (page 166):
Phase 1, Be home by 10 p.m. every night.
Phase 2, Have all devices (TV, phone, etc.) turned off by 10 p.m. every night.
Phase 3, Be in bed by 10 p.m. every night (reading a book, talking with your partner).
Phase 4, Lights off by 10 p.m. every night.
Phase 5, Wake up at 6 a.m. every day.
In the beginning, it’s much easier to be home at 10 p.m. every night than it would be to suddenly start waking up at 6 a.m. every morning. Once we’ve established that habit, we could move on to Phase 2 (and so on).
Once we’ve reached Phase 4, we’re likely to get 7-8 hours of sleep before 6 a.m. comes around – which will make Phase 5 (the initial goal) much easier to accomplish.
Another way to start small and scale up is to use the so-called Two-Minute Rule. Instead of trying to read our Bible for thirty minutes every morning, we can commit to reading it for just two minutes every morning.
It turns out that forming a new habit depends less on the period of time (for example, thirty days) than it does on repetition and frequency.
As Clear says, “Each time you repeat an action, you are activating a particular neural circuit associated with that habit. This means that simply putting in your reps is one of the most critical steps you can take to encoding a new habit” (page 144).
This means, if we read our Bible frequently enough – even for just two minutes a day – we can build up a long string of repetitions, and those repetitions will be enough to build the habit.
After a while, we can scale up our reading time to five minutes, or ten, or fifteen – whatever our ideal time would be. The key is to start performing the habit daily, even if for just two minutes.
Recognize “decisive moments”
Getting started each day can often be one of the most difficult parts of maintaining a habit. Exercise junkies know there are days when they just don’t feel like working out.
Perhaps we didn’t sleep well last night, and we slept in too late to read our Bible. Or, we put it off until evening, and now we’re too tired.
According to Clear, we often face the decisive moment: for example, the moment when we have to make the decision to read our Bible that day, or put it off until tomorrow. Of course, putting it off means we are one day closer to breaking our new habit – it’s a negative “repetition.”
When we reach our decisive moment for the day, we can use a variation of the Two-Minute Rule from above – we can tell ourselves, “For today, I’ll only read my Bible for two minutes. But I will read it.”
Making this decision has two benefits: one, it provides an extra repetition for our habit, even if we only read our Bible for a couple minutes. Again, stacking up those positive repetitions is vital.
Two, there’s a good chance that once we start reading, we’ll be glad we did; more often than not, we’ll read for our normal time allotment. Exercise junkies know this simple fact: if they begin exercising even when they don’t feel like it, they often start to feel better and actually enjoy the workout.
We can learn to recognize these decisive moments, and commit to doing the activity for just two minutes – that’s easy enough, right?
Automate your desired behavior
Another way to make our desired new habit easier to develop is to use a “commitment device” – that is, find, create, or purchase something that will force us to do the behavior.
For example, if we’d like to start walking to get more exercise – we can get a dog. We’ll need to walk the dog a few times a day, so now we have made a secondary decision (getting the dog) that obligates us to do our desired behavior (walking for exercise).
If our mornings are too busy for us to read the Bible, perhaps we could purchase an audio version of the Bible and have it play automatically whenever we start up our car for our drive to work.
Make it Satisfying
Our brains seek instant gratification. Eating a doughnut tastes good now; exercising makes us tired now. In both cases, it takes months to see the end result (worse health if we eat a daily doughnut, better health if we exercise each day).
Which one does the brain like more? The doughnut, because we like the taste. Thankfully, we can use our knowledge of “instant gratification” to help us overcome the desires of the flesh.
Reward your brain
One way we can convince our brain to do something we should do is to bundle that habit with something we want to do. (Of course, this “want” should not be anything sinful.)
For example, perhaps we want to play Wordle in the morning, or scroll through our favorite social media account. We can use the “habit stacking” technique (from last time), and make playing Wordle our “reward” for reading our Bible.
So, our morning routine might look like this: “After pouring my cup of coffee in the morning, I will read my Bible for five minutes. After reading my Bible, I will pray and ask God to help me do His will in the upcoming day. After I pray, I will play Wordle.”
By associating something we should do (like reading the Bible daily) with something we want to do (perhaps play Wordle), we are more likely to develop our new habit – no Bible reading, no Wordle for the day.
(Note: eventually, we will find that reading the Bible is its own reward; we just need to maintain this spiritual discipline long enough to reach this point.)
Track your habits
Tracking our habits can be an effective way to develop new habits. In one study, participants who tracked what they ate each day in a food diary lost twice as much weight as those who did not keep track of what they ate (page 197).
When we are more intentional about things, we tend to be more conscious of our decisions.
Another benefit to tracking our habits can be the sense of building and maintaining a streak. In general, we don’t like to “break the chain.” The longer our streak gets, the less we want to break it.
For example, the language learning app DuoLingo keeps track of your daily “streak” – that is, how many consecutive days you have completed at least one lesson.
I know I don’t want to lose my current streak of over 1,250 days (and counting…)!
A lesson typically takes less than eight minutes, and I can see my progress – French gets easier to read as I learn more words. Why wouldn’t I try to maintain this habit?
If we put a mini calendar inside our Bible, or on the desk where we read the Bible, then each day we read a passage we could put a check (or even a gold star!) on that day. As the days passed, we would see our streak would grow longer and longer.
Never miss twice
Tracking our habits and maintaining streaks are great ways to develop and maintain our desired new habits. But Clear warns us about the dangers of breaking a streak: “Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit” (page 201).
We should do whatever we can to prevent missing a habit more than once.
If necessary, remember the Two-Minute Rule. Even if we just read our Bible for two minutes that day, we can still mark off that day on our calendar. We’ll save our streak, and remind our brain that this activity is important.
God designed our bodies and our brains; better than anyone, He knows how they operate. As science reveals more about how they work, we can use that information to our advantage.
Thus, to begin a new spiritual discipline, or habit, we can hijack our brains by using little techniques that work. As God sees that we are serious about drawing nearer to Him, He will draw nearer to us (James 4:8).
Remember what David Mathis said in Habits of Grace: “There are paths along which [God] has promised his favor” (page 25). That is, there are ways that we can access God’s favor and grace – that is, His transforming power – in our lives.
But we have to flip on the light switch to access that power. We have to be willing for God to change us.
The best way to demonstrate our willingness is to follow those paths Mathis talked about – the paths that we highlighted last month in our discussion of Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
Remember, although we mostly talked about developing the habit of reading our Bible on a daily basis, these tips can work for developing a habit for any of the spiritual disciplines.
Which of these techniques are you most interested in trying? Let us know in the comments below…