The bad news is, as William James put it, “All our life … is but a mass of habits.” It is also the good news. Of course, our habits can dig a rut from which we might never emerge, but they can also construct a lookout from which we can discover ourselves and our world.
Humans are habit-making creatures - thank God. What a mess life would be if we weren’t. If humans did not form habits, every time we walked into a dark room, we would have to think about what to do next. We would have to logic it out. As it is, we just flip on the light switch.
If we didn’t form habits, no one would be safe on the road. Each driver would have to think about how to accelerate, make a turn, and stop the car. When some unforeseen event took place - a car ran a red light or a child wandered into the street - there would be no time to think through what to do next. The results would be disastrous.
We might complain about gaining weight and giving in to the temptation to eat junk food, but what if we had to think about how to take in nourishment? What would our lives be like if, at each meal, we had to recall how to chew and swallow? Eating would take all day long, and most of us would be woefully malnourished.
We may despair over the bad habits that we or our relatives and friends have developed, but the inability to form habits would be a far crueler fate. Without habits, we would be utterly exhausted within an hour or two of rising in the morning. Without habits, we would have no time for exploring the world or enjoying the good things in life.
According to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do,” but we like to think we are what we occasionally do - or imagine ourselves doing. We’re like the duffer who thinks he’s the kind of golfer who hits in the 30’s on nine holes because he once had four pars and a birdie. But what he repeatedly does in nine holes is hit three bogies, two double-bogies and one triple-bogie. That’s the kind of golfer he really is.
Character - who we really are - is not formed by our intentions but by our habits. The good news is that character is not fixed. We can break old habits and form new ones. In fact, just forming one new habit can begin a cascade of changes that can radically improve a person’s life.
Each January, millions of Americans make resolutions. They post them on their social media pages, and let the world know they are going to lose 20 pounds or stop smoking or read Charles Dickens. They make resolutions when they should be making habits. They lay out a distant goal, but don’t consider the path to getting there.
The only real way to keep resolutions is to form habits. This is the place to focus our energies.
For example, instead of, or along with, making a resolution to lose 20 pounds, we might choose to form a habit of eating a mid-afternoon fruit or vegetable snack. That will affect our habits when we are at the grocery store. It will affect our habits when we are packing our lunches. If we continue these behaviors long enough for them to become habits, losing 20 pounds becomes much more likely. But if we don’t change our habits, we’ll not change our weight - at least, not for very long.
How long does it take for a behavior to become a habit, “to perpetuate itself,” as William James put it, “so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do?” According to experts, on average it takes 66 repetitions of the behavior to form a habit.
This is good news. Forming habits, which in turn forms character, does not require gargantuan willpower. It only requires frequent repetition. This is true whether we are forming habits of eating, thinking, or relating, both in the physical and the spiritual realms.
This year don’t just make a resolution. Form a habit.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.