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The Profound Importance of Habits

The Profound Importance of Habits

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. — Ephesians 4:22-24

“You’re going to love school today,” I tell Whit as I zip up his coat. “You have PE, which means you get to go outside,” I go on as I tie his shoes. “And if you see your brother Ash in the hallway, make sure you give him a fist bump,” I remind him as I buckle his seat belt, “because brothers stick together, okay?” This is a remarkable moment, and totally normal. You do it too. We do complicated, difficult tasks on autopilot. We flip pancakes and change diapers while also doing much more important things like chatting with a spouse or mulling over a work problem. We can do this because of the amazing phenomenon of habit.

Habits are fascinating little things. They are the things we do over and over, semiconsciously to unconsciously. By definition, they are, of course, little. But the aggregate impact of habits is as big as each habit is small. Habits not only occupy most of our time, they form most of our minds. There is a neurological reason for this. Modern neuroscience has shown us that habits occur in the deepest parts of our brains, the basal ganglia, which are the parts that churn on autopilot while the higher order thinking does its complex acrobatics. This is wonderful because it frees up our higher order thinking for more important things. This is why I can tie shoes and buckle seat belts while also teaching an important lesson to Whit about how brothers are to show affection in public.

On the other hand, you can see the absence of habit’s magic when you watch a toddler try to tie their own shoe — the task consumes every bit of mental energy they have. You could not break through if you were a bear on a unicycle. This capacity of our brains to work in lower order habit while higher order thinking cruises along uninterrupted is one of God’s wonderful neurological gifts to us. When done right, we can accumulate all kinds of wonderful processes in our lower order thinking, and they become completely natural to us: the drive home, a hug on the way out the door, a nighttime blessing, a dinner table prayer, catching a football, cracking an egg, or rubbing your spouse’s neck.

Whether rote or romantic, habits allow us to carry on in a world that’s plenty complicated enough without needing to second-guess ourselves constantly.

But the neurological downside of habits is as powerful as the upside. The same feature that allows us to perform a good habit without thinking about it makes it hard to change a bad habit even when we are thinking about it. Picture a wagon wheel in a rut. It takes no effort at all to stay in the rut. But it takes incredible effort to pull the wheel out of it.

Good or bad, a rut is a rut, and our brains love ruts.

Your basal ganglia are so good at staying in the rut that you cannot just tell them to get out. Your lower brain has spent its whole life ignoring that higher order thinking. It’s supposed to, after all. Its job is to keep you in the rut regardless. In other words: You can’t think yourself out of a pattern you didn’t think yourself into. You practiced yourself into it, so you have to practice your way out. Take my nighttime routine. I knew in my higher order brain that I didn’t want to spend another evening barking orders at my children. But when I slipped on the water in the hallway, the basal ganglia (which house the fight or f light response) were triggered, and I flipped into the habit of fighting my way through the evening. The norm unfolded not just without much thought but even in spite of my thought. This is why habits are so neurologically formative: like a rut, they take us somewhere. They have a destination even when our minds are opposed to it. But habits are not just neurologically formative.

Habits are also spiritually formative. Because when our heads go one way but our habits go another, guess which way the heart follows? The heart always follows the habit. Why? Because habits are kinds of liturgies.

Seeing Ordinary Habits as Liturgies of Worship

Habits are little routines of worship, and worship changes what we love.

Habits of the household are not just actions that form our families’ routines, they are liturgies that form our families’ hearts. This is why we should choose them so carefully. Think of it like this: when it comes to spiritual formation, our households are not simply products of what we teach and say. They are much more products of what we practice and do. And usually there is a significant gap between the two. If our hearts always followed our heads, we would not need to practice the things we learn. We’d just learn about it and the rest would follow. But that’s not how humans work, which is why the biblical understanding of sanctification is not just about education and learning but about formation and practice as well. We are tasked not only with learning the right thing, which takes concentration and thinking, but also with practicing the right things, which takes formation and repetition.

Consider habits of the household as an effort to unite education and formation. Think about them as ways to align our heads and our hearts so we don’t just know the right thing to do, we also love doing the right thing. The neurology and spirituality of habits can seem complicated (especially if you haven’t thought about any of this before), but few matters are more practical than the spirituality of habit.

Nothing important is easy. So I will not claim that rethinking the habits of our households is easy in any sense. But what I will claim is that these habits profoundly matter to our families’ spiritual formation, and changing them is possible. It may be the most important thing you do as a parent.

Adapted from Habits of the Household: Practicing the Story of God in Everyday Family Rhythms by Justin Whitmel Earley, copyright Justin Whitmel Earley.

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Your Turn

Habits are liturgies. Little things that we do every day shape us spiritually as they are done unto the Lord! We have the privilege of shaping our families, our kids, and grandkids, too, as we choose “good ruts” for our families. What habits are you changing this coming year? Come share with us! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full