Christian Living

Creatures of habit: Getting our habits under control 

In part 1 we looked at why it’s so important to harness our habits for good. Now we turn to the nitty-gritty practical stuff about what this might look like.

At the risk of stating the complete obvious: we make time for the things we really want to do in life.

We want to eat, so we make time to get food. We want a coffee, so we make the time to get it. If we want to get to know a certain person, we make the time for that too, and we don’t do the other things that we would have done instead.

My new habit

In the process of writing this article, I’ve started a new habit of a brief time of Bible reading and prayer before I read my other book on my bedside table and go to sleep at night. 

But when my kids were little, I was fast asleep before my head even hit the pillow every night, so I used to read at other times. I can’t really remember exactly when. But I did somehow manage to read the books I wanted to read, watch TV, and do (most of) the things I wanted to do. They weren’t necessarily the best things! But you see my point.

Different routines will work for different people at different times in life. If you’re anything like me, you’ll just get into a new routine and then things will change and you’ll have to work out a new one.

Develop the habit of rest

Here’s a habit that my husband learnt for resting. He was told this as a fresh-faced first year MTS apprentice many years ago. It has been one of the best blessings in our marriage and in ministry. It has four steps:

  1. Get a diary (this was in the days before smartphones).
  2. Get out your pen, and write in your diary each week which day is going to be your day off (a full 24 hours) and which other evening is going to be your night off that week. Write it in pen because it’s going to be really tempting to change it—because there’s always more ministry and more work to be done, always. There are 7 billion people in this world who need to hear about Jesus. Now, obviously, there are some occasional times when you just have to sacrifice your day off for something that comes up. That’s because—as I’m sure you all know well—life and ministry are messy. But that should be occasional. Do not make a habit of it, or you’re asking for burnout.
  3. Write in your diary the other things you need to do—in pencil so that you can rub it out and change it as you go through the week. 
  4. Read your diary.

For us now, this involves our ‘Sunday afternoon diary sync and pray’. (It doesn’t have to be a Sunday, but that’s the time that suits us at the moment.) We get a coffee, then get out our diaries and look at what we have to do in the coming week, plan when to have our evening off, when we’re going to do the things we have to do, and make sure we’ve not double-booked ourselves. It can take a while to sort through it all! Then when we’ve done that we pray about the coming week. Usually we look at everything we’ve put in the diary and it drives us to pray! (Recently we’ve realised we have to now include our teenagers’ diaries because their diaries are impacting ours; it’s no longer just that our schedule impacts theirs. We usually just quickly check with them if they’re doing anything in the coming week that is different to the usual routine.)

If you’re now wishing you and your spouse would do that, firstly remember this is different for different people. Our patterns won’t work for everyone—you have to work it out for yourself.

Secondly, remember you can’t make your spouse do this—they have to want to. If you’re a wife in this situation, make it easy for your husband to lead in this area. For example, if Lionel’s forgotten to pray with me for our week , I don’t jump to remind him. I can always pray about it myself later. Change your habits, and over time that will have an impact. You can encourage your husband to give this a go with you, but don’t nag him. 

Thirdly, remember it’s taken us 20 years to get to this point, and it’s not always been like this in our family!

Remember grace

We are motivated by grace. God won’t love you any more or less by your habits, because your place in his family was secured by Jesus’ death on the cross for you. 

Titus 2:11-13 reminds us that it’s the grace of God that trains us to say no to ungodliness and to be self-controlled. We think it’s the opposite, don’t we? We think that in order to learn to say no to ungodliness and to become self-controlled we need rules, laws, punishments, strict regimes. But that’s not what the Bible says to us. In Jesus’ death for us complete rebels we’ve been brought into the very family of God; we are privileged beyond anything we could ever hope for. That’s a motivation for growing to be like our loving God.

Acknowledge your weakness, and start small

Ask for God’s help! If you’re anything like me, you’re going to have to keep asking for God’s help, and he is kind.

Beginning with just five minutes is a good way to start small. There’s a lot of wisdom in the ‘stop while you’re having fun’ rule. Don’t start with a two-hour in-depth Bible study and long list of people to pray for, or you’ll only do it once.

Simple plans can be easily adapted; complex ones not as easily. When things don’t go to plan (as they tend to do) a simple Bible-reading and prayer habit can be changed to a more convenient time and then picked up again. (Most recently, after returning to part-time work, I’ve switched from night time reading of God’s word to breakfast time while I quickly eat my toast, and there’s always time to be praying about it while I brush my teeth before rushing out the door.)

Another tool is to link a new habit with something you like—a place, time or activity. Piggyback it to another habit you already have. This is what I’ve been doing with my five minutes of Bible reading and prayer before I read my other book and go to sleep.

So, do you like sitting down with a cup of tea in the afternoon? Try five minutes of Bible reading and prayer then. Have two cups of tea!

Do you love the early mornings when no-one else is up? More power to you.

Do you like getting into your PJs at 4.30 in the afternoon? Try five minutes of Bible reading in your PJs.

Do you like going for a run? You can listen to an audio Bible for five minutes before your regular music.

Do you like sitting in the sun, or gardening? Those are perfect times for praying through a list of people.

Develop the super-habit of reviewing your habits

You develop new habits without noticing. Your life changes, and your habits might have fallen off the bandwagon, or they need to change because they’re not working for your new situation. Getting rid of bad habits can be hard, and if it’s too hard you might need to get some help. It might be a good idea to have someone keep you accountable. 

Some things to consider

What kind of person do you want to be, under God? What do you want to do in life? 

Do you want to sit at the feet of Jesus, listening to him? Do you want to submit your life to God and his word? Do you want to live for Christ?

Do you really want to be a prayer warrior when you’re old and infirm? I really do. But I have to start now if I want to be one.

Do you really want to grow in love for your church family?

Do you want to build into your life regular time for rest and refreshment for the sake of yourself and for those around you?

As you consider these questions, I’d encourage you to write down your answers to these questions, as well as some ideas about what time you’re going to use to do change your habits, knowing yourself and what’s realistic for you. 

Remember, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness through knowing Jesus (2 Pet 1:3). Ask him to help you consider how best to use your habits for the sake of training for the life to come, and for the sake of those whom you serve. Ask him to give you what you need to turn to him again when you fail. Above all, let’s remember God’s grace to us and the prize of Jesus’ return.

These two articles were originally given as a talk to ministry wives at Moore College, Sydney.

Some of this material was first published here on Lionel Windsor’s website.