106. How do you create habits?

I was watching a TV show the other day where a doctor wasn’t allowing a patient to go through a cultural ritual and as a result, she was very anxious and uptight.  After this incident, the doctor’s partner caught the doctor going through his own ritual in getting ready for a surgery – a certain way of washing his hands and repeating certain phrases that he said under his breath.  He subsequently allowed the patient to go through her ritual and face her surgery with a greater sense of peace.

I continued to think about this concept as I stepped out of the shower the next day and recognised the ritual that I have established over many years in drying myself.  I hadn’t really thought about it before that moment. I have a clear system that I meticulously follow every day.  My wife also has her own ritual that is totally different from mine!  Mine includes drying every part of my body according to a certain order.  Hers on the other hand, involves waving the towel over her body haphazardly and allowing herself to air dry as she puts her make up on! You probably have a ritual too!

Our lives are filled with rituals or as we more commonly call them – habits.  I was reading about habits in a book called, ‘the power of habit’ by Charles Duhigg. Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.  Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

A process in making habits: The process within our brain is a three-step loop.  First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.  Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional.  Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.  When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.  It stops working so hard and diverts focus to other tasks.  So, unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.  Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits. Good habits help us love and serve God and our neighbour.  Bad ones hinder us in at every step.

The Pepsodent experiment: In the early 1900’s a company came up with a toothpaste product called ‘Pepsodent’, and they asked Claude Hopkins to advertise it for them. The problem was that a very low percentage of Americans were interested in dental care and so didn’t have a habit of brushing their teeth.  Ten years after Hopkins launched his advertising programme, over half the American population had a ritual of brushing their teeth.  So how did he do it?

First of all, he discovered through his research, that a film covers our teeth and so by rubbing your tongue on your teeth you can tell if they are smooth or if there is a film covering them.  This became the cue or trigger.  Then he looked for a reward and came up with the phrase – ‘the Pepsodent smile’ and recruited all kinds of celebrities to use their smile to encourage others that they too would have that smile, if they only brushed their teeth every day.  Who didn’t want a more beautiful smile!

There was still something that was missing though – a physical craving. So, they experimented with toothpaste to not just clean the teeth but provide a positive sensation.  They added a foaming agent, a minty taste and finally an ingredient that made your mouth tingle.  None of these ingredients helped the cleaning of teeth but that fresh taste made your mouth feel clean and added a cool tingling effect that enabled people to remember when they hadn’t brushed their teeth.  Today ‘Hopkins rules’ are still used extensively.

Habit creation: Habits are automatic responses to situations.   We have many habits every day and have already mentioned our shower drying routines.  But our lives are filled with routines, rituals or habits from dressing, getting ready for work, devotions, what we talk about, how we speak to people, how we treat them, how we behave in our responsibilities, when and how we forgive, etc.. 

We are encouraged in Romans 12 to ‘renew your minds,’ and in Philippians 4 to ‘keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind.’  In Colossians 3 we are exhorted to ‘robe yourself with virtues of God, since you have been divinely chosen to be holy. Be merciful as you endeavor to understand others, and be compassionate, showing kindness toward all. Be gentle and humble, unoffendable in your patience with others.’  These and many other scriptures like them, all require habits to be formed.

For instance, when I get in my car alone, it is a cue for a prayer time where no one can reach me or interrupt me.  My reward is a sense of closeness with the Lord, and the craving that encourages me to get in the car in the first place, is a peace that comes from having unburdened myself and having received input for my day.  It is the same when I get on a flight – I actually look forward to a personal retreat with the Lord and have a focused time of meditating and journaling.

A testimony of habit creation in healthy living: A couple I work with in LDC’s recently shared with me some changes that had taken place in their lives.  We always do some sessions on healthy living in the LDC and they were aware of an integrity issue in their lives.  They said, Simply put, we wanted to live what we say we believe.’

James 4:17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (We’re not saying that eating cake is sin!) 

‘We had learned a lot from what we had seen and read, about how to steward our bodies; what’s healthy and what to avoid. The challenge was implementing it and sticking to it. We found a plan we thought would work for us.’  So, their cue or trigger became the preparation and planning of meals.  A decision needed to be made to relieve their sense of incongruency.   The routine needed some thinking through the changes in diet and the planning of menus but once they had started, the routine became easier. The reward in their own words was, ‘Less mental chatter – peace from doing what we believed was right with regards to food and peace from having less decisions to make.  We also experienced a better sense of physical well-being – steadier energy levels, no heart burn and less need for a nap during the day.’  As a by-product they each also lost 40 pounds in the last four months.  The craving that created the motivation to change was a strong desire to live lives of integrity or be congruent with their words and actions. 

Another habit my wife and I have established over the last few years has been that of taking communion together as a couple.  We had talked about it often and always enjoyed communion times in the retreat centre when a group came through but hadn’t been able to see it happen in our life together.  The cue became seeing bread on the table.  Whenever we saw bread, we mentioned communion.  The reward was having a clear agenda of connecting spiritually together and the craving that encouraged the activity, was a sense of intimacy and closeness in our meal together that brought a new depth in our communication.

Changing a bad habit: A new habit can form in forty days or less, but it is easier if we replace a habit rather than establish a whole new one.  So why not replace a bad habit with a good one!  Some years ago, I found myself waking up with the sense of a cloud hanging over me – negative feelings and a pessimistic outlook.  So, I decided to start the day in a more positive way.  After reading ‘a thousand gifts’, a book about gratitude, I decided to start each morning with thanksgiving.  The cue was opening my journal in the morning and the routine was to begin by writing down 10 things I am grateful for. The reward was recognising how blessed I was by God, plus a sense of accomplishing a new habit and the craving or desire was to experience those positive feelings to start the day.

Many have found that they have an addiction to Facebook or technology and if they see those little red notifications pop up on their phone, it is hard to resist opening up the aps. I have stopped the wrong cues from my phone by turning off notifications that are not priority for me.  I have spoken about distractions before, but these have a habit of becoming the basis of our bad habits!

If you travel a lot, it’s so important to establish a new ritual as soon as possible when you arrive at a new location – basic habits will include the time we go to bed and get up, when we exercise or go for a walk, what we eat and how often, what time we have our devotions, when to do preparation, relational time, etc. We do need some intentionality here or our habits can be lost very quickly.


  1. Prayerfully consider a priority in your life right now that you have been finding hard to implement or develop into a habit.  Perhaps it’s something like spending more significant time with God, getting into an exercise programme, establishing a communication time with your spouse or friend, or whatever…  
  2. Ask yourself, ‘What is the outcome I desire?’ – put it into words and write it down.
  3. Now establish a smart goal – specific (something you can clarify), measurable (how much), attainable (not out of your reach – one step ahead), relevant (something important right now) and time oriented (how much by when).
  4. In order to reach that smart goal, you need a cue or a trigger.  What could that be for you?
  5. Establish a routine. What are you going to do for how long? 
  6. Now think of what you are really desiring or craving?
  7. And finally, what will be the reward?

Happy habit making,

Until next month


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