Making New Years' resolution is one of my favorite end-of-year activities. Every year I'm encouraged by the idea that in a mere 12 months I will have become a (marginally) better person. But every year I'm unable to keep the resolve in my resolutions for more than a few months. I've tried to be more persistent (Resolution #12 - 1988), develop more willpower (Resolution #9 - 1993), and even “resolved” to keep my resolutions (Resolution #1 - 1998). Nothing ever seems to be effective.

This year I'm trying something different. Instead of just making new resolutions, I intend to make new habits.

How Habits Create Character

Think back over your day’s activities. Did you pray or read your Bible? Did you have a snack before lunch or dinner? Did you check you email or social media after receiving a notification on your smartphone?

While these activities may not appear to have much in common they all share a common feature: they are usually done out of habit.

A habit is a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior acquired through frequent repetition. Habits, whether good or bad, are behavior or practices that have become so ingrained they are often done without conscious thought. If we seek out a vending machine at 3 pm it’s likely because we have developed a habit of having a mid-afternoon snack. If someone were to confront us and ask why we were buying a cookie and soda we’d say that we were hungry. But the truth is we are simply re-enacting a pattern of behavior that has become ingrained in our daily routine.

Habits drive our behavior, which in turn forms our character. No one wakes up one day to find they’ve suddenly developed either an immoral or a godly character. It is through habits of rebelliousness against God that we become “slaves to sin” and through habits of obedience and obeying from our heart the “pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance” that we become “slaves to righteousness.” (Romans 6:15-18).

Our character is shaped by the responses we make to thousands of decisions over the course of our lives. Most of the time we respond without consciously thinking about how to act. We tell the truth because we’ve made a habit of truth-telling. Over time we become honest and trustworthy because the habit of truth-telling has become engrained in our character.

Because of the role habits play in spiritual growth (or spiritual degeneration), it’s important to understand how they work, how they’re formed, and how positive habits can be created. 

How Habits Work

Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. God designed our brains to automate mundane and rote tasks (such as walking) in order that we might have more mental energy to spend on spiritual or cultural tasks (such as worship or creating songs).

Every habit starts with a behavioral pattern called a “habit loop,” which consists of a cue, routine, and reward. The cue is a type of trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and begin the routine, which is the behavior itself. The final step is the reward, an internal or external stimulus that satisfies your brain and helps it remember the habit loop.

Consider, for example, one of the most frequently practiced habits of personal hygiene. As you prepare to go to bed at night (this is the cue) your brain reminds you to brush your teeth (this is the routine). The fresh, clean feeling that results provides a positive experience (this is the reward).

If you forget to follow this routine, you may find your brain sending you a reminder or a signal that something is wrong (usually after you’re comfortably warm and snug in bed). This is because habits satisfy a neurological craving — our brains look forward to the sense of fulfillment that comes with completing the routine. This is also why it becomes so hard to not check our email when we receive a notification. Even if we know the email is something that can be handled at a later time, our brains want us to “close the loop” by completing our habitual routine.

How to Create a Habit

To create a new virtuous habit, apply the following four steps:

Identify the habit loop — The new pattern of behavior you want to create, such as one based on a resolution, will consist of the habit loop: a cue, a routine, and the reward. Take a few minutes to think through and write down the details of each part of the loop. For our example let’s use the habit of a daily devotional reading. To set up the routine — the main action of the habit, such as actually reading the devotional — we’ll need to identify the materials that are needed (e.g., access to a Bible and the devotional material) and establish a time in which we can consistently carry out the habit loop (e.g., in the morning, before work).

The more you understand the habit loop you are creating, the easier it will be to identify any problems that might prevent you from making it a habitual behavior.

Isolate the cue — Cues are signals that tell us to begin the habit routine. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says research has shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, “emotional state”, “other people”, and “immediately preceding action.” Choose a cue for your habit loop that takes advantage of as many of these categories as possible. For instance, our cue could be pulling into the parking lot at work (location and immediately preceding action) at 8:40 am (time) when we are relieved to be out of traffic (emotional state) and when no one else is around (other people).

Create a reward — When creating a virtuous habit, the reward stage can be the most difficult step of the habit loop. Why should we be rewarded for doing something we should be doing anyway? And isn’t the habit — such as our devotional reading — a reward in itself? It’s understandable that you may feel guilty about creating a reward for developing a good habit. But keep in mind that you are not rewarding yourself for doing the right thing, you’re training your brain to create a neurological craving. If we have a “reward” (such as eating a small piece of candy) after reading a devotional it isn’t to actually reward us for our accomplishment; it’s merely a way to directly affect how our brain will respond to the habit loop.

Plan and evaluate — The reason habits are difficult to consciously create is because they have not yet become a habit. It’s the conscious part—making sure your brain is actively focused on the habit loop—that becomes the stumbling block.

For the habit loop to become an ingrained habit requires effort and persistence. You need a plan that outlines how you’ll handle obstacles and what you’ll do when you miss your schedule and need to get back on track. Similarly, you’ll need to continuously evaluate your habit loop to ensure you have effective cues and rewards.

On their own, resolutions can be a helpful tool. But by combining them with habits you can create a powerful means for transforming your character and helping you to live a more godly life.