I think there are about 4 or 5 moments a year in which I decide to take up running. It’s always something different that inspires me. Someone running down the street, early in the morning, while I’m sipping my coffee and eating pancakes drenched in maple syrup. A wall of running shoes giving me visions of my future self, lean and fit, smirking at my former flab. A movie trailer with John Krasinski’s abs taunting me. Did Jim always look like that in the Office?
Fast forward to a week later. Having finished dinner an hour ago, I’m on the couch downing a bag of chips, sipping soda, and watching hours of television. So what happened in the last seven days? How did I go from being zealously inspired to sloth-like in my behaviour? I ran maybe once or twice and it was terrible. I remembered all the reasons why I gave up the last time. Who wants to feel like that so early in the morning? All hot and sweaty, sore legs, and more tired than I was when I woke up at 6 am?
So what do I do? Should I read more books about working out? Should I wait for the next moment of motivation? Maybe John Krasinski will continue to make action movies that will inspire me! Should I just get out there and do it?
Or maybe you’re a Christian, and every January you have big plans to actually start reading the bible. Like, for real this time. But the pattern of getting a few months in and giving up is all too familiar and seemingly inevitable. You miss a week or two and suddenly your bible reading ambition is reduced to “Meh, I’ll give it another go next January. Next time, I’ll be prepared.”
There is a modern idea that we can change things simply by gaining enough knowledge about them. You can see this in our education system. Have you ever had a prof who lectures for hours, giving information they hope just seeps into your brain somehow? How much of it do you remember? How much of it has applied to your daily life? The problem is that we’re not primarily motivated by our thoughts, but by what we love. It’s not our knowledge that moves us, but our deepest desires. I know that exercise is good for me. I could read endless studies about it’s positive effects on my body, but if I don’t really want to do it I probably won’t.
It’s our loves, our desires, that determine what we do. This love isn’t the shallow feelings of attraction, but the deep, sometimes dark, desires that determine what we do unconsciously.
This love is more than a feeling and a choice. As James K.A. Smith says “[Love] is less a conscious choice and more like a baseline inclination, a default orientation that generates the choices we make.” In order to change the choices that we make we need to change what we love. And we change what we love through habits.
Let me explain by getting back to exercise. Exercise sucks when you first start to do it. I don’t know many people who love it when they start, but over time and with practice, they learn to love it. It becomes something they keep doing, not because of the scientific studies they’ve read, but because they genuinely enjoy it. How did this happen?
Habits! Habits not only tell us what we love, but form what we love. The problem is that often these habits are formed without us knowing about them. Often these are the habits that we don’t want in our lives. We get a subscription to Netflix and before we know it we’re binging for 10 hours a day. A McDonald’s opens across the street and we’ve gained 10 pounds of Big-Mac weight.
If habits are this important to our physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health, then we need to learn how to form the good ones and prevent the bad ones. Here are some tips:
Habits take a lot of effort at first. They require consistent conscious choices before they become habits. Pick one habit to work on at a time and work at it until it becomes second nature before you start another one. Trying to start multiple habits at once is more likely to end in a discouraging failure. If you try to start getting up on time, going to the gym, eating healthy, studying more, and learning how to salsa dance all at once, you’ll be lucky if even one of those habits sticks.
The worst thing you can do with a moment of motivation is to make grand plans for your habit. Instead, start small, or even tiny. I heard a story about a man who wanted to make exercise a habit in his life, so he started with one pushup. Divide your habit into steps and make it almost impossible not to do. If you want to exercise, make the first step putting on your workout clothes, and give yourself a high five. If you want to read more books, then make the first step opening one.
Link your habits with existing habits. What do you do every day? Is there something you do immediately when you wake up without thinking about it? Maybe it’s taking a shower or eating breakfast. Link your new habit to one of these habits. Go to the washroom, then do some sit ups. Just don’t do them simultaneously…
It can be so easy to say, “Tomorrow I’m going to start running!” or, “Tomorrow, I’m going to go to bed at 10 pm!” Following through is hard though, and the problem may be that you haven’t made a plan. When are you going to start your new habit? How are you going to remember? Where will the habit take place? Do you need any supplies or a change of clothes? What exactly are you going to do and for how long? Make a detailed plan. Think it through and it will be easier to follow through.
Habits can often take a few restarts to actually stick. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work the first time. After a week on the couch, pick yourself up and get back out there. Learn from your mistakes, make a new plan, and implement it. New habits are hard to form for most people, but they’re worth the trouble. Don’t despair, just keep going.
The biggest mistake I make after hearing habit-forming tips is to try to get started right away. I need to remember, though, that I won’t be motivated by lists and tasks. If there’s no purpose, no desire underlying my actions, it will ultimately fall short. We form habits in order to form our hearts. To do that we need to have our conscious desires help us develop habits that shape our unconscious desires. When that happens we have a habit, a deep-seated action shaped by and shaping our desires. Figure out the best target before you shoot the arrow.