In 2012, Random House released a book by Charles Duhigg on the nature of habits with an eye toward denouncing bad ones and mastering new ones. While it does not operate on a Christian worldview, it has a lot to offer those of us who preach week in and week out to people who desperately need to change their habits.
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg puts his investigative skills as a New York Times reporter to good use. What is the nature of habit and how do we replace bad ones with good ones? He covers a broad range of case studies:
- a woman who bites her nails to the bone
- a man who lost his ability to remember anything past 10 minutes yet is able to “remember” new things ingrained through habit
- a man who turns a fledgling company around by focusing on one seemingly irrelevant habit
- a company that sells its product (Febreze) by connecting it to customers habits as opposed to their logical need for it
- a woman whose life is utterly destroyed by gambling
- a man who grows his church by drilling three habits into the culture
- and more…
Duhigg sometimes oversimplifies things but, in general, the reader will readily agree that any habit is comprised of three components:
He calls this the habit loop since the cue will inevitably arise again automatically prompting the routine and then the reward.
The solution to changing destructive habits? Change the reward or change the routine. We can identify cues — triggers that prompt a certain behavior. But these cues are not easily changeable if they can be changed at all. Besides, it’s the behavior that’s killing us: the overeating, the angry yelling, the spousal infidelity, the lying — whatever. So Duhigg proposes a simple strategy to get the reader started on change.
Step one is obvious: Identify the routine. What is the habit that you wish to change?
Step two: Experiment with rewards. It’s not so easy to identify what you really are getting out of the behavior, Duhigg explains. Why are you doing it? Is it the pleasure of the action itself? Is it some other satisfaction that comes with the action? Is it mainly to distract you from another behavior or state of thought? So Duhigg suggests changing the reward that you get at the end of the same routine and see if you remain unsatisfied. If you are still craving, then that is not the reward you’re subconsciously after. If you feel satisfied then you have figured it out. (The example he uses is eating cookies at work — clearly this suggestion would not work for some behavior that must change immediately like cutting oneself or substance abuse)
Step three: Isolate the cue. Each time your craving kicks in, take notes about where you are, who is around you, how you’re feeling mood-wise, etc. After a while you will notice a consistent pattern and be able to identify what the trigger really is.
Step four: Have a plan. Is the reward good but the behavior bad? Change your behavior to achieve the same reward through appropriate behaviors. Is the reward itself bad? Reward the good behavior in a different way. Duhigg admits this takes time but asserts that we can change any habit by replacing them with new, more compelling ones.
What to avoid and what to appreciate
Not that one should expect him to, but Duhigg does not explore what makes us adopt bad habits in the first place. The biblical answer is that we are broken, fallen and separated from our Creator. Things are not the way they’re supposed to be even within ourselves. External solutions like habit changes are doable. It is not that the unregenerate person cannot exhibit willpower without Christ. Yet, without understanding the root cause it will be impossible for anyone to experience change at the root. Therefore behaviors can change but the depravity that produces them never will, unless Christ is at work within us.
Yet this book offers valuable insights for the preacher. Do we understand the importance of behavior modification? We know that external behavior changes do not comprise the change that the gospel is all about. But isn’t there value in understanding how we think and how we operate? How our brains work? As preachers, it’s easy to send people home with one simple reminder that will solve all problems: put your faith in Christ. And how true this is! We certainly don’t want to fall into the trap of sending them home with a list of self-propelled, life-changing things to do if faith in Christ is not at the core of it.
Yet we also do not want to simply dole out the same basics every time — read the Bible more. Pray more. Come to church more. Give more. With no specific explanation in “real time.” Nor will it suffice to end every sermon with the mere admonition to stop. Stop sinning this way, stop sinning that way. I believe that do’s and don’ts are necessary ingredients to gospel-centered preaching. But Duhigg challenges me to think a little more about the specific ways my people struggle in their daily habits. And how I struggle in mine.
No matter what the cue, we know our greatest craving is the comfort and satisfaction that only the Lord can provide (Psalm 23:1). But we can help our people think through what is really happening when they click on a pornography site, begin flirting with someone who is not your spouse, break things in the house when angry, eat poorly to the point of damaging their health. What other biblical behaviors might we suggest that can produce the “reward” they’re craving? Or what other appropriate “rewards” might we recommend that can be attached to the current habits? Or how can we change our environment so that we do not face the same overwhelming triggers so frequently?
Theology should be practical. This isn’t psycho-babble. It’s common sense. We can help our hearers by being more specific in the “uses” of the doctrines we teach and how the gospel can shape our daily habits and routines. Every sermon does not have to offer tips for habit change. But when no sermon ever offers encouragement at this level, I think we do our people a disservice.