Foundational habits

There are some little actions that done very day can make a big difference to your quality of life. These actions are mostly not difficult, nor require much money or effort.

See not difficult at all. Yet these can make a profound difference to your day and if you don’t do them, you really do notice the difference.

A few years ago I started drinking water as soon as I woke up. The rehydration and positive effect I felt in my body was almost instant (and there are lots of good reasons to drink water regularly). It became and still is the very first thing I do each and every day. It is, for me, a very good habit.

The last year or so the biggest habit I’ve been trying to develop is getting a good nights sleep (lots of good reasons to get good sleep too). I wrote about it over 18 months ago but it’s been harder than I thought.

Yet when I sleep well and I’m rested – I work better, parent better, exercise better, eat better, play better and basically do pretty much everything better. I have more self-control because I have more energy. Sleep it turns out (like drinking water) is one of those foundational practices that if done regularly, makes everything else that little bit easier, more enjoyable and possible.

Developing good habits are also self-reinforcing and one good habit can quickly lead to another, it’s called the domino effect. As James Clear explains:

The core idea is that if people commit to an idea or goal, even in a very small way, they are more likely to honor that commitment because they now see that idea or goal as being aligned with their self-image.

Habits are the bricks in the wall of character. They’re not the wall but you’re not getting much of a wall if you don’t have any bricks. You’re not going to have much character without some good habits.

Anne Snyder a researcher for the recent book The Fabric of Character defines character like this:

Character is a set of dispositions to be and do good, engraved on a person in multiple ways: by strong family attachments that teach what to love and how to love well; by regular habits that ingrain small acts of self-control; by teachers and role models who personify excellence and inspire emulation; by religious instruction on honest, courageous, and compassionate living; through institutions that establish standards for good conduct and mentors who inculcate concrete ways to execute it; by the reading of great literature; through experiences of struggle, positions of responsibility, and the blessings and demands of enduring commitments. (emphasis mine)

There’s much more to character formation than simply a collection of habits because you have to deeply invest in they why of your habits. Yet there they are, little rhythmic actions that you repeat, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.

When I want to establish a new habit or work on erasing a bad one I use a habit tracker. The first thing this does is reveal the truth. I’m often way more inconsistent than I thought. I’m much more prone to laziness and bad habits than I’d like to admit. Tracking an action is revealing but it is also motivating. As you string a chain of successes together you don’t want to break it, and you begin to dig in for the payoff when the initial hard work settles down into a ‘natural’ rhythm..

Using this method I’ve lost weight, got more sleep, rested more purposefully, read more consistently and related more intentionally. I’m invested in creating a series of good healthy habits.

There are obvious results in my body but it applies too to my spiritual life and I’m not just talking about reading the Bible regularly (although that too). You can create habits of generosity, kindness, welcome, engagement (with God & people) and habits for almost any particular area you want to focus or grow in. These rhythms orient me in a particular direction and prepare me for the times when the inevitable challenges arise.

There is a risk of course that we try and do it all ourselves as if by sheer willpower we can make ourselves good (or rather I should say make us ‘righteous’). We can by sheer willpower create good or better habits. People, self-evidently, do that all the time and just as self-evidently people slip, drift or decide their way into negative habits.

Yet as Paul writes, grace is a powerful motivator to create good habits and a Christ-like character:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not in vain. No, I worked harder than all of them— yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

1 Cor 15:10

As a Christian I do not expect my habits to save me but I do expect them to help me and I’ll continue to work hard at creating them.

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