Q: Every year I try to change my relationship with God.  I try to start praying more regularly, avoid some habitual sins, and be an overall better person. But I always seem to fail.  I just slip back into my old habits.  What can I do?

A: I think that your timing is perfect.  There is nothing like the beginning of the New Year to get people thinking about the changes that they need to make in their life.

Will power

We need habits.  In fact, we might not really be able to function well without them.  There have been a number of studies recently on the topic of “will power”.  Researchers asked the question of why some people seem to have more self-control and will power than others.  One of the things they found was that will power is a finite resource.  During the course of a day or a week, you can use it up.  This explains why you are able to pass on the doughnut for breakfast, but by the time the end of the day rolls around, you will eat anything you can get your hands on.

If you “use up” your will power early in the day, you might not have what you need for big decisions by evening.  At the same time, those same researchers noted that anyone can “grow” or “strengthen” their will power.  They talk about will power like it is any other muscle; when you first begin intentionally using it, it can be weak.  But through training, it grows in strength.  Therefore, even your attempt to use your will to make good decisions is a powerful force.  Even if you fail, you are strengthening your will.

This is why we develop habits.  The human mind and the will are finite resources.  Therefore, if we set up patterns of thought and behavior, we use less mental energy and less will power.  For example, if you were raised to brush your teeth every morning and every night, you perform this task without having to decide every time you do it.  You don’t have to convince yourself that it is worth it, you don’t debate whether or not you’ll do it this time, and the decision to brush your teeth costs virtually no will power.  It is a habit, and the choice has been made.

That is the good news about good habits: they are easy to maintain. But that is the bad news as well: habits are easy to make but hard to break.  They are like the proverbial “rut”; since we have traveled down this road in this way for this long, we have created a rut.  It takes energy and thought to get out of that rut.  But it can be done!

In his book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg points out that we often adopt a “habit loop”.  It consists of three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward.  Virtually every habit we have follows this pattern. The cue is typically a person, place, or thing.  For example, a person might have the habit of logging on to Twitter (I work with high school and college students) every time they have to wait for something.  The “cue” is “waiting”.  The routine is to pull out their phone.  And the reward they are looking for is some distraction while they wait.

But imagine that this person realizes that they spend too much time on this social media and not enough time reading significant literature.  They would first have to identify the cue, their response, and (above all) the reward they are looking for.  For this person, the reward might be “distraction”, but it might also be “connection” (at least the kind of connection we have in a virtual world).  Recognizing what they are really looking for is essential, because many people miss this and find themselves struggling to adjust their routine because it does not satisfy what they are seeking.

For example, a person could have the habit of having one beer or a glass of wine at the end of the night.  If they decide that they don’t like this habit, and try to simply drink less (but don’t know why they are drinking alcohol in the first place), they will have limited results.  But if a person is drinking a beer in the evening because the beer symbolizes “work is done…you can now relax”, then they need to introduce another routine that can give them the same reward.  What is something that could signify “off duty”?  I know some people who have addressed this habit by drinking “night time” tea.  The cue is the time of day.  The desired reward is the sense of “your work is done”.  And their new routine is to sip on a cup of caffeine free hot tea.

One of the mistakes people make at this time of year is trying to change insignificant habits.  They try to change a whole bunch of things at once.  This is a recipe for failure.  Duhigg points to what he calls “keystone” habits.  These are the habits that provide the soil for other good habits.  They often begin a chain reaction to other healthy and holy ways of living.  For example, we often spend a lot of time changing incidental habits.  But if we were able to focus on the “keystone” habit, others would fall into place.  For example, a person might find that they are often behind on their work.  They commit and recommit to do major projects on time.  But it could be possible that a keystone habit would be to respond to every phone call or email as soon as time allows.  This small habit of calling or writing back to people immediately could break through their procrastination loop and help them move when action is needed.  It doesn’t immediately address their project delays, but it addresses the part of them that hesitates to do what needs to be done.

Another person might really want to pray every morning, but they just can’t seem to get out of bed.  They might just try to go to bed earlier, but chances are good that there is more at work.  What is keeping them up?  Is it the computer?  Is it the TV?  Do they have other people in their life who are night owls?  If one of these was the case, they might develop the habit of shutting down the computer or turning off the TV at nine pm.  Of course, this needs to be coupled with some other reward.

Of course, in all of this I have not even mentioned the role of grace.  Grace is real and grace is powerful.  Grace gives us the ability to do things that we would be unable to accomplish on our own.  When Saint Paul wrestled with his weakness, he was painfully aware that he was unable to overcome it with his own power.  He needed to rely upon God’s grace.  Jesus Christ is the one who gives us the Holy Spirit…and the Holy Spirit makes up for our “power shortage”.  There are some issues and some struggles that are more than our strength can overcome.  This is one of the incredible secrets of AA.  Once a person realizes that they are powerless to overcome their weakness, they turn to a source of power greater than themselves.  This power is God himself. And every Christian has the grace of God that they need to be free from whatever holds them bondage.  Coupled with a strategy for removing obstacles, any person can begin to eradicate the bad patterns and replace them with wise habits.