How to Build (or Break) a Habit

If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, we need to pay careful attention to our habits. Because we hand over much of our lives to our habits, much more than we probably realize.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, describes a habit as “a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic” (44). Neurologically speaking, habits are “mental shortcuts learned from experience,” behaviors that our “conscious mind [passes off] to our nonconscious mind to do automatically” (46).

Now, take a moment and consider how many actions you’ve taken today while your conscious thoughts were focused on something else. Did you get dressed? Did you eat? Did you tie your shoes or a necktie? Did you apply makeup? Did you operate a smartphone? Did you walk through a cluttered room without breaking anything? Did you drive a vehicle or ride a bike? Did you do so on a busy street? If you were to log, for a week, all the simple and complex tasks you do that require little to no conscious awareness on your part, you would be amazed. And you’d come away with a deeper appreciation for the massive influence your habits wield on your life.

Behaviors that become automatic, ones we stop noticing after they become habitual, are powerful — for good or for ill. Which is why it’s important for us to occasionally take notice of them. And all the more because the benefits or consequences of our habits compound over time.

Compounding Power of Habits

Clear explains the compounding power of habits:

The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent. (16)

For people like us, who like fast results from our efforts and immediate gratification of our cravings, this is a sobering discovery. It helps explain why we often struggle to stick with new resolves. It also helps explain why we formed many of our bad habits in the first place (and why we find them hard to break). If we look to short-term outcomes to measure our success, we’ll likely be discouraged. Because, as Clear says,

Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. (18)

And I would add that your spiritual health and growth and fruitfulness are lagging measures of your spiritual habits. Acquiring good habits and breaking bad ones require patience, perseverance, and faith — exercises that yield many and varied benefits themselves.

“Goals get us nowhere without the good habits required to achieve them.”

We’ve all been taught that if we want to achieve something, we need to set goals. In principle, that’s true. Yet how many goals have you set that have gone unachieved? Why didn’t they work for you? In part, because defective systems trump good aspirations. In other words, your habits undermined your goals. Goals get us nowhere without the good habits required to achieve them.

Building a Habit in Four Steps

So, how do we build the habits required to achieve the prize we desire? And how do we break habits that are impeding our pursuit?

When it comes to habit-building (and breaking), there isn’t just one way. Clear, however, provides four helpful steps he’s gleaned — first from his very difficult experience after suffering a serious head injury, but also from extensive research in the neuroscience of habit formation. The four steps are cue, craving, response, and reward. Clear describes how they work together like this:

The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop — cue, craving, response, reward; cue, craving, response, reward — that ultimately allows you to create automatic habits. (50)

Understanding how this “habit loop” works also helps us when it comes to breaking bad habits.

Below, I attempt to concisely take Clear’s general insights and help us see how we can benefit from them as Christians. Keep in mind that these steps merely describe strategies for habit-making and breaking from the neurological perspective. For Christians, forming habits will always involve more than neuroscience: it will involve faith in God’s promises, joy in Christ, and reliance on the Spirit. So, as you read, exercise your ability to take common-grace knowledge and apply it for spiritual purposes.

1. Cue

Every habit we develop begins with a cue, something that “triggers your brain to initiate a behavior” — a behavior your brain associates with a desired reward (47). Hunger is an obvious example; it’s a cue to eat. Over time, we develop lots of cues around eating: certain times of the day, certain places, certain events, certain activities, certain moods, and so on.

The same is true of all our habitual behaviors. Seeing the television remote, the Bible on the table, the phone notification, the running shoes, the vending machine, the prayer list, the sensual image — all these can become behavioral cues.

Make good cues obvious: When it comes to creating a good habit, we need to identify new cues that our brains associate with the desired behavior and then think through ways to make the cues more obvious to our brains. Clear suggests we fill out the sentence “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]” and then place cues strategically as brain triggers (71). With repeated practice over time, our brains will associate these cues with the beneficial behavior.

Make bad cues invisible: Breaking bad habits also can begin by removing cues that prompt detrimental behavior. Clear says, “Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity” (71). So, he advises us to look for these unhelpful cues and write them down. Then think through ways to reduce or eliminate the kind of “sight” that triggers our brains.

Let me give you a personal example of changing cues. Because I decided I wanted to set my mind on things above before going to sleep, instead of “things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2), I decided to charge my smartphone in another room (removing a cue that triggers my undesired behavior) and set my Bible or a spiritually edifying book on my nightstand (inserting a cue that triggers my desired behavior).

2. Craving

The power of a cue is that it produces a craving. Clear points out that a craving is

the motivational force behind every habit . . . [because] without craving a change, we have no reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. (48)

In other words, when we think we crave a soda or cigarette or sitcom or social media plunge, it’s not really those things we crave. What we crave is the pleasure or relief our brains associate with those behaviors. In fact, researchers have found that typically more dopamine is released in our brains when we anticipate the pleasure than when we actually engage in the behavior.

Make good cravings attractive: When it comes to creating and sticking with a good habit, willpower isn’t enough. Our brains must learn to associate a new behavior with a craving — the anticipation of the behavior producing some reward. Ideally, the ultimate goal this behavior helps us achieve provides sufficient motivation. Often, at first, we need to find creative ways to make the behavior itself attractive until our brains more clearly associate the behavior with our ultimate goal.

Make bad cravings unattractive: When it comes to breaking a bad habit, again, the inverse is true. We need to teach our brains to stop associating a learned detrimental behavior with a craving for pleasure. We do this by explicitly rehearsing the ways the behavior actually works against our greater pleasure until our brains interpret it as an undesirable and unattractive means of pleasure.

Any of us who’ve tried to change our eating habits in order to drop weight or promote better bodily health understands the importance of these two strategies. Because given how persuasive cravings can be, if we didn’t find creative ways to enhance the attractiveness of healthy foods and decrease the attractiveness of unhealthy foods before our brains made the craving switch, we most likely reverted back to our bad habits.

3. Response

A craving pushes us to respond in a way that will achieve the desired reward. When a particular response is repeated enough times (depending on a number of factors, this might be few or many times), it becomes a habit (like drinking a soda, smoking a cigarette, watching a sitcom, or plunging into social media).

Make good responses easy: When it comes to creating a good habit, “simply putting in your reps is one of the most critical steps you can take” (144). Of course, some habits are easy to establish, while others are very challenging. Either way, “much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits” (155). We need to look for ways to minimize obstacles and increase convenience when it comes to desired behaviors. We all know that the easier a behavior is, the more likely we are to do it.

Make bad responses difficult: When it comes to breaking a bad habit, we do the opposite. As Clear says, “When friction is high, habits are difficult” (158). So, we need to look for ways to “increase the number of steps between [us] and [our] bad habits” (213). This is where recruiting accountability partners and restricting our future choices by “burning bridges” are often helpful.

I have a dear friend who put this strategy into practice. A number of years ago, he was actively fighting a sinful habit of viewing online porn, but his job required him to be frequently online. So, he subscribed to a service developed by a Christian ministry that tracked his online behavior and made it visible to his accountability partners. Making it more difficult and painful to indulge his destructive habit helped him break free from it.

4. Reward

In the end, the only reason we develop a habit is to pursue a reward. As Clear says,

The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. (48)

“Christ is a reward for whom it’s worth building and breaking every habit necessary to obtain.”

As Christian Hedonists, we say amen! We believe that the ultimate reward of every good habit — great or small, easy or difficult — is to increase our satisfaction in God. That’s why Paul sought to “discipline [his] body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:27), so that he could “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Paul was pursuing the great, imperishable Reward: that he might “gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). And Christ is a reward for whom it’s worth building and breaking every habit necessary to obtain.

As I mentioned earlier, in this fallen age our brains don’t always make the association between a particular habit and our ultimate reward. And so, “immediate reinforcement helps maintain motivation in the short term while [we’re] waiting for the long-term reward to arrive” (192).

Make it satisfying: When it comes to creating a good habit, we are wise to look for ways to make it feel as rewarding as it is. Because “we are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying” (185). And since “one of the most satisfying feelings is the feeling of making progress” (204), creating or using some kind of habit-tracker can provide the kind of incentive to keep us going.

Make it unsatisfying: When it comes to breaking a bad habit, you can probably fill in the answer yourself: find ways to make it costly. Again, inviting an accountability partner to monitor your behavior and/or committing to an undesirable consequence can provide enough disincentive to avoid the harmful behavior.

Habits Are Allies or Enemies

Why have I given so much space here to habits? Because of the massive influence they wield in our lives. And because they do so largely outside of our conscious awareness. When our habits serve our goals of living in a manner worthy of our calling and gaining Christ, they are invaluable spiritual and physical allies. When they impede those goals, they are spiritual and physical enemies. Given the compounding effects they have on us over time — for good or for ill — we are wise to occasionally take notice of them so that we can make the necessary adjustments.

I hope what I’ve covered encourages you to think more about your habits, and that you go on to learn more from what both Scripture and neuroscience have to teach you. Because I’ve only just scratched the surface. Habits are complex, affected by our genes, our temperaments, our experiences, our family and friends, our churches, our cultures, our health, our preferences, our strengths and weaknesses, our unseen spiritual influences, and more.

We’ve all been given a race of faith to run. And if we run faithfully with endurance, laying aside every encumbering weight and sin, we are promised a glorious, incomparable, imperishable, eternal prize: Jesus Christ. Paul exhorts us to “run that [we] may obtain [him]” (1 Corinthians 9:24). So, we take our habits seriously. Because they influence the way we run — for good or for ill.