Leveraging the Power of Habit

I read a book recently that has prompted me to re-think the role of habits in my life. Justin Whitmel Earley isn’t a pastor; he’s an attorney. But it would be helpful to think of his book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, as a spiritual meditation on the power of habits.

Much of what is written about habits is about breaking bad ones. Earley talks about that, but his approach is much broader. He believes (rightly) that our daily and weekly habits are the architecture of our spiritual formation.

Habits become dangerous to our spiritual well-being when we fail to form our own habits and allow outside forces to form them for us:    

Take your work schedule or your social media scrolling, for example. Think about your internet history or how you spent your mornings last week. Think about what you usually eat for lunch or the time you spend with  family versus the time you spend looking at a screen during a normal day. These things define vast portions of our lives, and while we would like to think we’ve carefully chosen them, most often we haven’t even given them a second thought. Most often we just swim along with what those around us are doing. And much more often than we would like to admit or even understand, we are nudged into those choices by those who want to make money off the patterns of our daily life. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that habits form much more than our schedules: they form our hearts.

He's right, of course. Our habits not only reflect our values, they also form our values. All the more reason to form our daily and weekly habits consciously, intentionally, as a matter of discipleship and not merely as a matter of convenience. His subtitle, Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, says it well.

The cover illustration is taken from a story he tells in the book. He tells about a Carolina jasmine vine that his mother planted in the garden next to the garage. His mother knew that the jasmine was a potentially aggressive plant that could take over the yard, but she built a trellis against the wall for the jasmine to climb. And that plant, which could have been a vicious invader, became a beautiful addition to their landscape, its rich fragrance one of Earley’s fond childhood memories.

Habits are like that. If we allow our habits to be formed by outside forces, they can overwhelm us spiritually, relationally, emotionally. But if we are intentional about establishing and maintaining good habits, they can be a powerful tool for spiritual formation. 

For Earley, as for many of us, his phone became a main focus of his rehabilitation of his habits. After landing in the emergency room with what he thought was a heart attack and hearing from the doctor that there was nothing physically wrong, he realized that his daily routine had become so chaotic that he had to rethink the architecture of his daily and weekly habits from the ground up.

He landed on four daily habits and four weekly habits that are helping him to regain his sanity. He doesn’t recommend these eight habits as the only path to spiritual wholeness, but they are worth some careful thought:
The daily habits are

  • kneeling prayer at morning, midday, and bedtime

  • one meal with others

  • one hour with phone off

  • Scripture before phone.

The weekly habits are

  • one hour of conversation with a friend

  • curate media to four hours

  • fast from something for twenty-four hours

  • sabbath.

If you’re like me, you find yourself at once intrigued by some of these habits and revolted by others.  (For me, the most cringe-worthy of Earley’s habits is “curate media to four hours” per week. Seriously? Four hours of media per week?) But don’t let any one of his suggested habits dissuade you from seriously considering his central idea: we need to be thoughtful and intentional about the habits that form the mental and spiritual backdrop of our lives. We serve no one well – not our families, our church, least of all our Lord – by letting our habits form themselves.

Where to begin? Start with a habit audit. Just pay attention for a week. Figure out what the architecture of your habits looks like now.

  • What are your morning and evening routines?

  • If you’re married, what are the routines that characterize your time with your spouse, your children?

  • What are your smartphone habits?

  • What are some things you are sure to do each week?

We have said that a disciple is someone who is bringing every aspect of life into obedience to Christ. Our habits may be invisible, but they are potent. And surely our habits are one of those aspects that must be brought into obedience to Christ.
Make this a matter of conversation – between you and God, between you and your family members, between you and your spiritual friends. And leverage the power of habits to make room for your spiritual life to flourish.

Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor