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getting in the habit

Neglected piano sitting in a front yard in Montreal
I recently read that it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit.  By habit I mean something that turns from an occasional activity (or a never activity) to one that you do automatically and don't argue with yourself about.  It has become part of you and your routine.  There is quite a difference in the length of time it takes to develop a habit depending on the activity. On average, drinking a daily glass of water takes only 18 days to become a habit, adapting to the loss of a limb takes about 21 days, and doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast takes more like 100 days.

Two habits that I have been doing for many, many years are working out and contemplation/prayer. I feel significantly better when I follow a workout regimen; it gives me strength, stamina, and energy.  The benefits are numerous.  If I am running late, I can sprint to catch the bus and not get winded.  I have the energy to climb up Mont-Royal and carry heavy bags of groceries up three flights of stairs.  It helps provide stamina to get through busy seasons such as end-of-term assignments or crazy travel schedules.  And I'd hate to get caught in an emergency and not be able to react quickly if someone's life depended on it. 

The same holds true for contemplation and prayer.  Consistent prayer practice strengthens my spirit, helps me have more emotional and relational stamina, and boosts my patience, generosity, and positive energy. The quickest way to notice the effect that daily prayer and contemplation have in my life is to skip them for a day or two or more.  I become more negative and am quick to criticise.  The perfectionist tendencies begin to run unchecked and problems or challenges leave me overwhelmed and distraught.  Just this past week I was confronted with a stressful situation and I was quite amazed (and relieved) at how I instinctively calmed myself, spoke quiet words of reassurance to others, and invited the Holy Spirit into the situation.  All without even thinking about it.  It was an automatic response, which is what a habit is.

However, habits are not guaranteed for life.  They can be neglected until they wither away. Every time my schedule changes (which is several times a year) I have to reassert my good habits into the new timetable.  Busy school terms are notorious for making both working out and contemplation difficult to practice.  But I know the cost of not doing these two things is high, so I try to make them a priority.  I don't always succeed and there are usually a few weeks where things get a bit chaotic and all my good intentions go out the window.  When I need to get through a lot of work in a short period of time, I have been known to turn to caffeine to speed up my brain process (I am a slow reader and writer - part of the contemplative effect, I guess).  The crash afterwards is pretty brutal.  After a day or two of caffeine, I have never once thought, "Wow, that was great!  I should do it again!"  I always regret turning to a short-term spike in energy because it ends up draining my body and mind instead of invigorating them.

We live in a culture that does not always value long-term commitment, so the benefits of holy habits are sometimes lost on people who want an instant pay-off.  But a longer period of time is integral to the principle of compounding effects (just like compounding interest).  Dedication over a long period of time can build things that could never be imagined from a short-term viewpoint.  This does not mean that we won't struggle with commitment.  Some days I flow easily into holy habits. Other days getting to them is a battle.  But if I miss a few days, I just get back on track and keep going.  Long-term commitment is as much about not giving up when I have a setback as it is about consistency.

Here is a prayer attributed to Brother Lawrence who laboured in the kitchen of a medieval monastery.  He knew something about holy practices over a long period of time.

Lord of all pots and pans and things,
since I've no time to be a great saint
by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming heaven's gates,
make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food,
in room, or by the sea,
accept the service that I do,
I do it unto Thee.

Habit statistics from psyblog.


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