Bad Habits, Good Habits and How to Change Your Life for the Better

Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, changed how we think about leadership. Yet, the title is a bit of a misnomer. The “habits” were really practices or approaches to an effective life.

A habit is something you do without thinking (more on this in a minute).

Covey’s “habits” were certainly things you’d ultimately like to do without thinking. But for most people, they require being intentional about how we do things. I want to address habits in the more conventional sense and how to make them work for you.

Charles Duhigg does a great job of breaking down how habits work in his book, The Power of Habit. According to him, a habit requires three components:

  • A cue
  • The action (habit)
  • A reward

He shows how to deconstruct a bad habit in this video about his habit of getting up from his desk every day at 3pm to buy a chocolate chip cookie (you may decide that’s not a bad habit, but he did). How did he do it?

His cue was 3pm. Break time. Like clockwork, so to speak.

The habit was to get on the elevator and ride up to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, go talk to somebody for 10 minutes while he ate the cookie, then go back to work.

The reward, so he thought, was the cookie.

As it turns out, the reward was actually socializing. Once he understood this, he was able to rework his habit so that every day at 3pm he would get up, go to a co-worker’s desk and chat for 10 minutes, then go back to his desk. The reward was essentially the same, but the habit no longer included the cookie. He also lost weight.

Duhigg has a great flowchart if you’re trying to deconstruct a bad habit.

But what about good habits? And why do they matter?

As it turns out, good habits are the bedrock for people who get things done in this world. Why is this? Because willpower and self-discipline are an exhaustible resource and good habits enable us to do things without using that willpower.

This Atlantic magazine article documents a now famous experiment in 1996 by Roy Baumeister and his Case Western Reserve University colleagues. They subjected participants to the aroma and presence of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Some of the participants were allowed to eat the cookies. Others were told they could not and were told to eat radishes instead (they were not happy).

The participants were then asked to go to another room for what seemed to be an unrelated challenge. There they were asked to solve what they didn’t know was an unsolvable puzzle. The result?

The radish-eaters made fewer attempts and spent less than half the time attempting to solve the puzzle compared to the cookie-eaters or a control group that faced neither cookies nor radishes.

The conclusion: self-discipline, self-control, willpower are exhaustible resources. The more you use them, the less you have available.

In their book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, list the factors that deplete your willpower:

  • Implementing new behaviors
  • Filtering distractions
  • Resisting temptation
  • Suppressing impulses
  • Taking tests
  • Trying to impress others
  • Coping with fear
  • Doing something you don’t enjoy
  • Selecting long over short term rewards

This explains why you can’t resist that quart of ice cream or the bag of chips after you’ve had a taxing day.

The authors go further and contend that self-discipline is not something that is available at our beck and call. So if you think you are not self-disciplined, you’re not alone. Sometimes we are, when our willpower hasn’t been depleted. Other times we’re not.

Here’s the key: people who get the results they want aren’t any more self-disciplined. What they ARE able to do is to focus their efforts long enough to develop a positive habit. Once that habit is developed, they are able to do it without thinking and without depleting their willpower. They can then do it again to add another positive habit.

If you apply this process to your life, you will be doing amazing things without depleting your willpower much at all. This leaves that willpower available to deal with the many challenges that each day brings.

We can apply this process to our spiritual lives: prayer, meditation, reading scripture and journaling are habits that, when developed, keep us focused on what really matters. That’s a must for effective leaders.

We can apply this process to our professional lives: reading, writing, research, sermon preparation, planning and learning new skills are just some habits that can boost our productivity tremendously.

We can apply this process to our physical lives: eating right, exercising, flossing and drinking plenty of water are habits that will help us feel better, live longer and work more effectively.

Keller and Papasan maintain that research supports the idea that it takes an average of 66 days to develop a habit. They also caution to only try to develop one habit at a time. Focus on it until it really becomes a habit and it will no longer require any willpower. You’ll just do it (that would make a great slogan). Then you can focus on a new habit.

Here are two tools to help you get started:

This flowchart from Duhigg will help you determine the cue and reward for your new habit (he’s assuming you know what the action is, as that’s the habit).

The the1thing.com has a downloadable 66-day calendar (scroll down once you get there). Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was asked to what he attributed his success. He said early on in his career he decided he would work on writing one new joke each day. By doing this, he would hone his craft. Each day that he did this he would mark a big red X on his calendar. After a while, the string of red X’s encouraged and motivated him. And he didn’t want to break the chain. My guess is, after about 66 days, he didn’t even have to think about it. He just did it. The 66-day calendar is a place to mark your X’s.

So that’s it. Go develop a new habit.

Questions for reflection:

What habit would you like to break?

How can Duhigg’s chart or approach help you to deconstruct and rework that habit?

What new habit would you like to start?

How would your life be different if you did?

Why the Supporters of My Candidate’s Opponent Don’t Upset Me

I have found that the key to being an effective leader is learning to be a non-anxious presence. That means not letting your own anxiety affect your relationships while still staying emotionally connected. It’s easy to not let your anxiety interfere if you disconnect emotionally. It’s also easy to stay connected emotionally without keeping your anxiety in check…although others might not find it so pleasant.

The challenge is to behave in non-anxious ways WHILE staying connected emotionally.

I’m not going to tell you who I’m voting for. It’s not like I’m shy about it. I have a sign in my window. If you want to know you can drive by my house. But this post is about emotional process and emotional process functions independently of content.

As we say in family systems, it’s process not content. Pay attention to the emotional process, regardless of the subject matter,

So you don’t need to know my candidate for this to make sense. In fact, it’s easier to understand without knowing.

This presidential election is filled with a lot of emotion. The “unlikeable” rating for each major candidate is historical. People are really angry. They are emotional. I get angry at times.

Yet, the opponent’s supporters are my friends, neighbors and perhaps even relatives.

In the end, who someone votes for is not really going to bug me.

Here are five reasons why.

People Don’t Negotiate Closely Held Values

In many ways, this election is not about the candidates but about a pretty clear division in values in this country. About 40% of the country will support each candidate, regardless of who they are because their party represents a particular world view. And that world view is not likely to change. It’s the people in the middle who will decide who is president.

I don’t agree with the other 40%, but I’m not going to change their minds. So why would I waste my energy trying?

People Don’t Make Decisions Rationally

That’s right. Decisions are made in the limbic brain, which has no capacity for speech. We really do make “gut decisions” or “go with our heart.” Then we rationalize them with whatever reasons we can articulate.

We’re selective when we rationalize. We emphasize the positives and ignore or dismiss the negatives.

So when I think to myself that the opponent’s supporters are doing this, I remind myself that I’m doing the same.

It’s Not Worth the Energy

Family systems theory has a concept called leadership through self-differentiation. It is the ability to articulate one’s own goals and beliefs while staying non-anxious and emotionally connected. It’s all about working on our own responses to the system in a way that takes responsibility for our own condition.

It’s saying “I believe” or “I feel” rather than using the blaming “you” or the guilting “we.”

The blaming “you” tries to make others responsible for our condition.

The guilting “we,” as in “we should” or “we need to,” uses the pressure of togetherness to get others to change.

In either case, we use a lot of emotional energy trying to convince others that they’re wrong. And that emotional energy is often filled with anxiety.

Leadership through differentiation, on the other hand, reverses that. By being able to take emotional stands (“I believe”), it is the others who get anxious and who will try to change us.

It’s not that we don’t listen or are not willing to change our mind. Our task is to stay non-anxious while staying emotionally connected. That makes it easier to articulate what we believe and makes it easier to listen. It’s not easy, but it’s a lot easier than trying to change the minds of others.

Back to the election. What good will it do me to argue with those who support the opponent? The fact is, when you try to tell someone what to do or think, they usually dig in. So if I spend a lot of time or energy on it, I’m only hurting myself.

(This is different than working for your candidate. That’s more about trying to get those who agree with you to get out and vote).

I Trust the System

You think I’m crazy. Hear me out.

Our constitution was designed so that without a mandate, our political system doesn’t move very quickly. That’s why we have checks and balances.

Our country is divided. So nothing happens. If you’re frustrated with government and politicians not getting anything done, it’s mostly because that’s the way it was set up.

Sure…I’d like to see my agenda move forward more quickly, but 40% of the country is not a mandate.

I Trust in God

As a Christian, I believe in God’s promise to one day restore all things to their original condition. Evil, injustice, oppression and human suffering will be wiped out. We will be made whole and live in community with humankind and with God.

That’s what we are praying for in the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

But we also believe that whenever love and grace win out over injustice, whenever we live in true community, whenever we truly live out what God intends, we see a glimpse of that fulfillment of all things. And others can see it, too.

So, if the election doesn’t go my way, I won’t be apoplectic. I may be disturbed for a bit. But God is in charge and that’s bigger than any candidate winning an election in a tiny blip in human history.

Leaders Eat Last (and serve others first)

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV

In 1978, I went to work at a GM plant in the Midwest as a co-op student. It was my first real exposure to the industrial world and I learned a lot. When the Iranian oil crisis hit in 1979, auto sales plummeted and our plant went from three shifts to one. Because of union rules, the layoffs were determined by seniority. To avoid being laid off, one had to have 16 years seniority with GM. If you had 15 years or less with GM, you were out of a job.

That’s the way of the world.

There’s an order to things. A hierarchy that helps us to determine what is fair and what is not. We like things that way.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard messes with our sense of fairness.

The idea that a person can work one hour, yet be paid the same as one who worked 12 hours isn’t right. It doesn’t make economic sense.

But God’s economy is different. God’s kingdom is upside down. The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

Scholars believe that Matthew included this parable to reach those in his church who were resentful of newcomers. We’re uncertain if it was a Jews (old) and Gentiles (new) thing or just long-timers and newcomers.

In any event, the long-timers had worked long and faithfully in the church, yet the newcomers were getting all the attention. We can hear them saying, “What about us? We’ve served this church for years, yet all you care about are the new people?”

And God’s response?

“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (MT 20:14b-15)

A Christian leader gets this. God is generous and God wants to reach all people.  Even the least among us.

If convicted mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer can have a jailhouse conversion and go to heaven, then God is certainly a generous God.

If we understand Jesus and the upside-down Kingdom of God, we know this is the radical nature of God.

But how do we help others to understand? What if we have church people like Matthew’s who are feeling resentful of all our efforts to reach new people?

We model it.

Jesus modeled servant leadership and we can do the same.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Mark 9:33-35 NRSV

Jesus makes a similar statement, but this time he is responding to his own disciples’ desire to be great. They are reflecting the way of the world, but their silence reveals they know better. Jesus spent three years on earth showing how to give one’s self away. He ultimately gave his life. But in so doing, he gave the gift of new life.

Here’s the thing. Jesus’ way works.

Simon Sinek, in his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Other Don’t, documents how.

Sinek had noticed that some work teams trusted each other and were effective and most weren’t. He started compiling examples, one of which was the Marine Corps. It was there that he discovered the basic concept.

Officers eat last. They take care of their enlisted folks first because that’s what great leaders do. As Sinek writes in the book:

“The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.” (as cited in Goodreads)

Jesus teaches us the same lesson. Even after he had told the disciples that the last will be first, James and John still didn’t get it. They asked to have a special place in the Kingdom of God, one at Jesus’ right and the other at his left (MK 10:37).

42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

We hear the term servant leadership often. How many of us are willing to live it? How many of us will model it for the congregations we serve?

As a friend once told me, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

If we want to see change, if we want the longtimers to welcome the newcomers (I mean really welcome the newcomers), then we start by serving. By caring for the needs of all whom we serve, including (maybe especially) the longtimers.

Then we can lead.

Questions for Reflection:

How is a servant leader different than one who “lords it over” others?

When has your own self-interest interfered with your effectiveness as a leader?

How can you better serve those whom you lead?

Three Leadership Lessons from the Japanese Rail System

The Bullet Train © Ben Salter from Wales-cc-by-2-0
The Bullet Train © Ben Salter from Wales-cc-by-2-0

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:13-16 (NRSV)

I experienced something amazing in Japan. The trains run on time. I mean EXACTLY on time. I think I had heard this before, but to actually witness it was almost life-changing.

We were in Japan for 10 days and used the rail system six of those days. Most times we had at least one connection. I recall standing at one track and looking at the schedule. It had two trains scheduled to arrive TWO minutes apart. Sure enough, one trained arrived on-time. Took one minute to load, then left. The next minute, another train arrived.

I say this was almost life-changing because I kept asking myself, “How is this possible?” And if it is, “Why can’t we do this?”

So I figured there are some leadership lessons here. The Discovery Channel has a great three-minute video that explains how they do it. It’s not rocket science, but it IS instructive.

Here’s what I learned.

Experience Matters

The Japanese take this to the extreme. Train drivers spend their working life on one line. ONE line. They get to know their route so well that they can arrive on time without using a speedometer. When they are tested, they’re measured to the hundredth of a second.

I know that experience matters. The accumulation of knowledge and experience not only enables us to solve problems quickly, but it also forms the foundation upon which innovation occurs.

How does this apply to the church?

First, longer pastorates are important. How can a church get anywhere if the pastoral leader changes frequently? Certainly a seasoned pastor can bring experience into a particular church, but there is also value in having experience in that particular setting.

Second, experienced lay leadership matters. This is not the same as stuck lay leadership and does not mean that new leadership is not developed on an ongoing basis. What it does mean is there is institutional memory that avoids repeating the same mistakes and provides a basis for new initiatives.

Lifelong Learning is Essential

Japanese train drivers use simulators, just as pilots use flight simulators. Trains are not nearly as complicated as aircraft. Yet, drivers train on simulators periodically to prepare for emergencies and unforeseen circumstances.

There is no church simulator. But the idea is this: none of us ever “arrives” as a leader. We can always get better. There is always something to learn. Experience matters. But experience without ongoing learning is how we get stuck.

One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, puts it this way: none of us is fully baked.

Pay Attention to Detail

Preventive maintenance is essential to maintaining a rail system. Watch the video to see the attention to detail. Tracks are kept level using a robot-like machine that can level 200 meters of track in 30 minutes.

Every four years, the train truck, or bogie (essentially the chassis), is cleaned, completely disassembled and inspected. Parts are replaced, if necessary, and the bogie is reassembled.

Attention to detail is the difference between average or mediocre and excellent.

We were recently complimented on a Pecometh event. “You all always do things with such excellence.”

I like to think we do things that way, but the reality is that’s not always the case. I honestly feel like most of the time we are flying by the seats of our pants. That’s partly due to trying to do too much.

But we do strive for excellence. So I responded, “We are doing it for God. We ought to be excellent.”

The response: “It’s not always that way in the church.”

It’s a sad truth.

It seems that sometimes people think that because we are Christians or that we have good intentions that it doesn’t matter if we’re mediocre.

We know the opposite is true. If we believe in the goodness of God, then we ought to do the very best work possible in everything we do because it’s a reflection of God.

Whether it’s worship, outreach, small groups, stewardship or any other aspect of the church, attention to detail matters.

The point is that everything we do is supposed to reflect the glory of God. The church does not exist for its own benefit. If it does, it’s no longer salt. If it doesn’t strive for excellence, it’s no longer light.

My experience with the Japanese rail system was almost life-changing because it has inspired me to do better. To be salt and light. We’ll see how life-changing it really is.

Questions for reflection:

What experience do you have as a Christian leader that could add value in your ministry setting?

What experience or learning do you lack that could add increased value?

Where could attention to detail move your ministry from mediocre to good or even from good to great?