The flow of our habits

The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.

This quote comes from an essay by Jonathan Safran Foer in the New York Times titled: How Not to Be Alone (published 8 June 2013). The essay is about technology eroding human connection, but this one sentence is what I want to focus on.

The nature of habits is that they are shortcuts around the hard work of thinking consciously about every little thing we do, how we act, the expressions we use, how we speak, even how we think (see Unhelpful Thinking Styles). In many ways we are, to other people at least, the sum of our habits.

Initially, to form a habit we shape our behaviour, consciously choosing certain actions and thoughts over others. With sufficient repetition a habit forms, a preference is established of resorting to the habit rather than the hard work of something that is new or different to us. Each habit we have causes slight changes to our brain, reinforcing the neurological pathways which cause the habit to occur and reducing the threshold to trigger the habit so it runs efficiently given the appropriate circumstances.

The sum of hundreds of habits we all perform every single day wears a groove in the matrix of society. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of people each running in their habitual groove and social norms arise, trends occur such as the generally bad attitudes of Dunedin drivers, the laid-back nature of most Polynesians, the brashness of Americans.

Because our habits wear a groove through our lives, they are very difficult to change. Obstructions can be ground down by the persistence of following a habitual track which requires less energy than altering course. This is most obvious in older people who have deeply ingrained habits that they are not even aware of. But it is not impossible to change habits, it does take great persistence and determination to make any changes stick

My typical approach is to go through each day without giving much thought to my habits. But if I consider the effect my habits could be having on the person I will be in ten years time, I need to decide what aspects of me now I want to nurture and what needs to be deleted. Then I need to look at which habits cause the attribute I don’t like and how I could change my habits to support better attributes. (There is a good bit of unfinished thinking here!)

Morning ritual cheat sheet

Today’s PDF is a Cheat Sheet for the Power of a Morning Ritual episode of the Accidental Creative podcast which is hosted by Todd Henry.

Rather than restate what is already a brief document (1 page), I will use it as a spark to give my thoughts on ‘morning routines’.

Get up at the same time each day

I generally manage this on work days and am thankful that this is now the case. Having done shift work in the past it is a blessing to be able to get up at the same time each morning.

Having said this, the wake up time completely goes out the window on weekends. Saturday is my sleep-in day and Sunday is church, so a shorter sleep in. I’ve read that ideally we should get up at the same time on weekends as on week days but I’m always knackered by Friday so the sleep-in is essential catch-up for me. Theoretically I should be going to bed early enough to not need a catch-up, but I live in the real world not ideal-land.

Read (30 minutes)

Oh to have this luxury! I do read, but it is for about 10 minutes (if that) while I eat my breakfast. I’d like to have time to read my bible in the mornings but this habit died out for me 16 years ago when our first child was born. My morning reading generally consists of a couple of poems (if I remembered to toss my current poetry book on the dining table before heading to bed the night before) and scanning the news on my phone to check if Trump and Kim have hurled nukes at each other overnight (I do genuinely fear this).

Space

Spend 15 minutes allowing your mind to wander.

This happens in the shower as I’m in a semi-conscious stupor attempting to wake up while wasting copious amounts of hot water.

Write (10 minutes)

My ‘brain dump’ at best consists of jotting down stuff I need to do in my notebook and I also keep a record of what poems I read for breakfast.

Reflect

This occurs at the bus stop if I get there in time. I wonder how to cope with a micro-managing boss, rummage through my bag looking for my bus card, and try to remember if I have enough credit on it.

As you may guess, I don’t have much time for fancy morning rituals, though I am not mocking Todd Henry – I have great respect for him. I just think we are quite different people and I am not really his target audience.

I do have a routine because I’m not awake enough in the mornings to actually think about anything, it needs to happen on autopilot. I’m flummoxed if the muesli has run out and I have to eat something different to usual, how could I manage creative thinking and strategic planning until after my third coffee? (You think I’m joking, don’t you?)

Screen free time

retro-TV

A second goal I am making in my attempt to be a better version of myself is to avoid electronic devices for an hour before bed. There is evidence that the light from certain types of screens such as LCD computer screens and mobile phones can suppress melatonin release in humans, causing difficulty falling asleep for some people. I’m not sure that this is a significant problem for me, but I do know that using the computer in the hour before I’m due to go to bed causes me to delay my bedtime. I get distracted by social media, interesting stuff on the internet, games and even useful things such as writing a blog post.

I should be using that last hour of the day to wind down, read my Bible, pray and get organised for the morning.

For me it is a little complicated by working odd shifts – my work day can finish at midnight, or bedtime can be 9:30am in the morning. But the principle still works, nothing I would be doing on the computer or my phone is so important that it should be allowed to displace time with God or my wife. Yet this is what I have allowed to happen for some time now and the cost has been too high.

To make this work I need to know when my bedtime should be, and possibly set an alarm or reminder to prompt me to turn off whatever gadget is grabbing my attention an hour before bedtime.


Image: Shutterstock

One percent improvement

The concepts of the aggregation of marginal gains and keystone habits dovetail together to map out a pathway to change: Figure out what habits will cause chain reactions of positive change and then work on making small improvements in those habits.

I recently stumbled across a blog post which resonated with my personal preferences in how I like to work towards goals. The article is: This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened by James Clear.

In the article James discusses the idea of looking for ways to make very small improvements in many seemingly insignificant aspects of life which together over time add up to surprisingly large gains. He calls this ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ and points out that despite ‘success’ often being measured as a single defining moment, the path to get there is comprised of many small decisions and habits repeated daily which eventually build upon each other to create large overall change:

In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. (In other words, it won’t impact you very much today.) But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t. This is why small choices don’t make much of a difference at the time, but add up over the long-term.  (This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened by James Clear).

I found the article particularly inspiring because for where I am at in life now, the idea of making large changes seems too overwhelming to face so I procrastinate and put off any commitment to improvement because it just looks way to big to be attainable. However, I can cope with the idea of making a 1% change, that looks more within my grasp.


Another concept relating to habit change which links nicely with the aggregation of marginal gains is that of ‘keystone habits’ introduced by Charles Duhigg, author of ‘The Power of Habit’. Duhigg states:

Some habits, say researchers, are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. This, then, is the answer of where to start: focus on keystone habits, those patterns that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other habits (The Right Habits by Charles Duhigg).


The concepts of the aggregation of marginal gains and keystone habits dovetail together to map out a pathway to change: Figure out what habits will cause chain reactions of positive change and then work on making small 1% (ish) improvements in those habits.

Exactly which habits will be best to focus on will vary between people and depend upon what your goals in life are. Some suggestions gleaned from around the interwebs are; exercise, sleep, journaling, friendships, diet, saving money. I would also add to this prayer and Bible meditation.

When I consider what I want my life to become and how far I am from causing it be be reality, the changes required are enormous. Yet if I can make small, 1% improvements in key habits it is possible to begin shifting the path I’m on towards the life I want to be living. This approach maintains a view of the goal, while also being realistic about the reality of life as it actually is.

A Few Relevant Links:

Feedback for faith

It is reasonably well established that the spiritual growth of Christians is closely linked to how regularly we read the Bible, ponder it’s meaning for us and engage with God in prayer.

Most of us can verify this in our own lives, the times when we have grown spiritually have often been those periods when we have spent more time in the Bible and praying. There can be a strong feedback loop in this; the more I am engaging with God the more I want to pray and read the Bible. Unfortunately, the converse is also true; the less I read the Bible the less I engage with God and the less inclined I am to continue to read the Bible.

I would not want to be dogmatic on which happens first in this feedback loop, it seems to me that if either factor slips the situation in general either spirals downwards or grows in worship. What matters most is to know that they are indeed linked. Being aware of this link enables each of us to influence our spiritual growth.

Yet it can be frustratingly difficult to maintain a regular habit of engaging with the Bible and engaging with God. I have been a Christian since I was 18 years old and for some reason it seems to be getting harder to maintain these habits as I get older rather than becoming easier which is what my expectation was (most habits get easier the longer you do them – driving is a good example). Several obvious reasons for this come to mind; I have 3 children who are still fairly young, I own a mortgage with a house attached so time is needed to maintain this liability, and I work on a 24-hour rotating roster so do not have a set bedtime or wake up time.

However, there are also increasing concerns that the digital age is bringing new pressures upon our devotional habits. In October 2013 David Murray posted a couple of articles looking at technology-related factors which make it more difficult to spend time with God:

  • Loss of boundaries between work and private life
  • Loss of concentration due to multitasking habits
  • Habitual scanning of text when reading
  • Loss of meditation/deep thinking
  • Loss of memory (as in Bible memorization, not Alzheimer’s disease!)
  • Loss of problem solving
  • Loss of social connection
  • Loss of sleep (definitely a problem for me!)
  • Loss of quiet
  • Loss of friendships
  • Loss of family time
  • Loss of privacy
  • Too much time wasting
  • Loss of purity
  • Loss of patience
  • Loss of wisdom
  • Loss of humility

For more detail on these problems, check out the original post. Multitasking, social media and Google cop the blame in David Murray’s post. I’m not in full agreement with his list as many of these things can be lumped together under the problem of having almost constant access to unlimited information and amusements. But it is good to consider how technology is interfering with my spiritual life. The followup post was a little more practical: 20 Tips For Personal Devotions in the Digital Age. Again, I don’t agree with everything on his list but it is a good start.

For myself, this difficulty in maintaining good devotional habits is a result of several intertwined factors: being much too easily distracted by the computer/internet, lack of sleep, reserving some quiet space in the day, and forgetting that being in fellowship with God is the greatest thing I can have.

At least there are some steps I can take to improve things:

  • Get more sleep
  • Step away from the computer sooner
  • Spend some time with God – even a little bit of real fellowship is a start

More and less in 2013


Well, a new year – time for resolutions, a fresh start, renewed energy – all that jazz. For me it is just another day at work.

However, despite my own cynicism, the start of a new year does mean something more than ‘just another day’ to me. After the draining rush and stress of Christmas and the ‘end of year’ wind up, there is a sense of needing a fresh start, a chance to get things moving ahead on the right foot. Fortunately for us who live ‘downunder’ we get to start each new year in the middle of summer so there really is a chance to nurture new growth, to get out into nature and unwind a bit, or read that book we were given for Christmas.

As yet I haven’t made any resolutions or specific goals for 2013, but I did drag out my old notebook in which I’ve written goals for years already gone by and noticed a few interesting patterns:

  • Some big goals that initially appeared out of reach have been achieved, particularly ones regarding jobs and income.
  • My goals of eating and spending less are the ones I put least effort into reaching!
  • Personal challenges that God has allowed into my life have forced me to work harder on some ‘personal development’ goals that had been on my list but slightly neglected – should have done that work sooner!
  • External pressure is a huge motivator for me to work on my goals; for example, I had a goal of studying the psalms more deeply which was neglected for several years. Then our church began preaching on the psalms and so that year my goal was more than fulfilled.
  • Spiritual growth/disciplines such as Bible reading and prayer are super important, hard to measure, never ‘complete’, and difficult to sustain without external motivation.
  • Small daily steps working on personal values can get me a long way, conversely – neglect of daily discipline can lead to wasted years.

So, goals for 2013?

I’m still not sure what my goals are for this year. There are a few ideas rattling around in my head but I’m suspicious that their origin is more from my own heart than anything God is wanting me to aim for. Last year was pretty tough so there is an obvious desire to try to make this year better, whatever form ‘better’ might take.

An idea which may be worth pursuing is of making 2013 to be a year of ‘less’. Less incoming clutter into my heart, mind, inbox, and hard drives. I’m a compulsive gatherer of information, to the point of becoming overwhelmed by too much to read, listen to, think about, process. I also eat too much and spend too much so aiming for less in 2013 seems like a good plan.

To immediately contradict myself, I also have a goal of more blogging here on Words of Eternal Life. Having not posted anything here for weeks means that ‘more’ should be easy to achieve! Over the last few months I’ve considered a couple of web projects that have diverted my attention from this blog but my focus is now back here and I’m keen to infuse some more life into this site. I’ve got a few plans of what I like to blog about this year but will keep these to myself until the writing has been done!

 

Image: iStock

My fridge is smarter than my soul

How come a fridge is smarter than my soul? I drift and drift and completely lose internal stability before realizing that some work needs to be done to get back to where I should be.

It has become my habit to use the quiet once everyone has gone to bed to check blogs, write a draft post, search for a picture for that post, check the news, scan Facebook, then wearily do the dishes and fall into bed. There was no plan of pushing God aside in my evenings, I am thinking about him as I do all these things. I’d like to spend less time on the computer but there are so many things that ‘need’ to be done online.

This evening, with no particular intentionality, I changed the order and did the dishes first – the computer was OFF, it still is as I write, with pen and paper – my favourite way. It took a while for the urge to be checking updates, editing, tweaking, researching, to subside.  Gradually the hum of the fridge became my new baseline – a monotonous drone maintaining the status quo. After a long reset my heart synchronized itself with this being here, maintaining a steady internal environment. It took over an hour to settle and regain the internal state of thirsting for God:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water
(Psalm 63:1 ESV)

Eventually homeostasis is achieved, the fridge stops humming – it will resume once it’s internal state drifts away from it’s set point. How come a fridge is smarter than my soul? I drift and drift and completely lose internal stability before realizing that some work needs to be done to get back to where I should be. Only then can I do the work God made me to do.

75 iPod-free days

It is now 75 days since I committed myself to going iPod-free for 100 days. During that time I have only listened to a smattering of music and three sermons from my iPod, all while it was plugged into the speakers in our kitchen (which was permissible under my plan). What have I learned from this experience so far?

  • The iPod itself is neither good or bad, it is what and how I choose to listen to it that can be good or bad.
  • My thoughts can be just as distracted without any audio input! I need to limit all sources of trivial input into my life.
  • I actually need a lot more ‘down’ time than I thought.
  • I am reading and then thinking about what I have read. My thinking is going deeper than it had previously been.

It has taken a while, but my thought habits have changed, I am now able to recall what I was musing over yesterday while waiting at the bus stop and pick it up to continue chewing over. I consider this somewhat bovine habit to be beneficial as I think, pray and occasionally write about where I am at with God (2 Timothy 2:7).

Interestingly, two weeks ago I couldn’t wait for this experiment to be over, now I am not sure if I will bother carting an iPod around with me even once my 100 days are done!

75-ipod-free-daysAs I considered the changes in my thinking I have realized how good it is to have ‘down’ time when my brain can just chill-out and not have to think about anything in particular, I can just let my thoughts wander. Coincidentally, I came across this blog post discussing why Being bored is a precious thing and was gratified that someone else shares my viewpoint (and a clever person at that!).

Maybe it is partly because my work requires me to be thinking and concentrating all day, but whatever the reason, I seem to need a lot of time to let my mind unwind before I can really re-focus upon God and living my faith. I do think about God and Christian stuff a lot, but generally on a fairly superficial, factual/informational level. I think it is important to go deeper, to wrestle with where I am at with God and what needs to be addressed in me. I want to know Christ, to get there I need to get real about whether I am obeying his call of ‘follow me’ (John 21:22). This requires quietness of heart so that I can notice as the Word of God addresses me. That might take five hours hauling firewood to get quiet enough internally to see what Christ is showing me.

I’m not talking about quiet time here — noise is fine, talking to the kids is fine, what is needed is freedom from having to concentrate on anything in particular, or needing to solve problems, or having my thoughts dragged off in a particular direction by whatever I happen to be listening to. Even if I am listening to sermons on my iPod for that time I miss what God is saying to me about me and Him. I might hear lots of other good stuff, yet miss what’s most important.