Dietitian Lana Hirth believes that the science she uses in her consultations with clients can also have a big impact on our faith. She doesn’t just help her clients eat more vegetables – she uses the latest habit-formation research to help clients manage conditions with healthy habits.
“I’m fascinated by [habit science] because it’s not just something we can use in health. It has translated to help me read my Bible more often,” says Mrs Hirth, who attends Rosemeadow-Appin Anglican Churches.
“I think more Christians should know about it. It can be a game changer for Christians to stick to godly disciplines, like Bible reading and prayer.”
Three elements make a habit
There are three core features of a habit:
Cue – the event, feeling or action that signals the start of a behaviour
Behaviour – the desired action
Reward – a feeling, outcome and positive experience
Humans make more than 35,000 decisions daily, and over half of these are automatic. When trying to make a new habit, people mistakenly start by altering the behaviour.
“The classic example is trying to go for a 30-minute walk every day,” Mrs Hirth says. “That’s actually really hard. But telling people to put their shoes on everyday is the cue. Over time, that removes a barrier and acts as a reminder to tell someone to do the new behaviour.”
The next step is to associate the cue with a routine reminder. “We then pick an ideal time and tie it to a location,” Mrs Hirth explains. “What helps a habit stick is time. It needs to be repeated daily, at the same time, in a certain location. When it feels that something is missing if you don’t do it, that’s when you can say this has become a habit.”
Knowing yourself is crucial to picking a realistic habit to work on. “Sometimes we set mammoth goals – like when we say at the new year, ‘I’m not going to eat any discretionary food’. We need to think much more simply. Isn’t it better to read the Bible for a little bit every day than to set the expectation of reading an hour a day that we can’t achieve?”
Don’t be discouraged if the habit doesn’t form right away. It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. One study asked participants to form a new habit of drinking an extra glass of water daily and found the average length of time it took for this habit to form was 66 days.
“The harder the habit is, the longer we would expect it would take to implement,” Mrs Hirth says.
We are fighting the world
There are some similarities between health and living a godly life. “From a health perspective, no one gets healthier by default. You have to make active choices or the environment shapes a lot of our actions. God calls us to be different from the world in 1 Peter. A key component of Christian life is listening to God’s word, speaking with him, and sharing Jesus with friends and family. Using habit science makes this easier.”
Knowing how to form habits has helped Mrs Hirth develop a practice of daily Bible reading. “Before, my Bible reading and prayer was always up and down like a roller coaster. Now, by the grace of God, I’ve been able to stick at my Bible reading.
“My youth leader read the Bible every single day. I always wanted that but didn’t know how to get there. The habit science was the missing piece of the puzzle for me.”
Top tips for building habits
- Tie your new behaviour to a location and time of day
- Link it to an activity you already do, like brushing your teeth or eating breakfast
- Set a realistic goal. It’s okay to start small if that is achievable. “Isn’t it better to read the Bible for a little bit every day than to set the expectation of reading an hour a day that we can’t achieve?”
- Use prompts, such as setting alarms on your phone or already having your Bible on the table before breakfast
- Be consistent. Doing this daily will help reinforce the behaviour more quickly.
- Persevere. It can take up to eight months for it to become automatic
- Expect it to take time
- Pray for the Spirit’s help
- Ask others to keep you accountable as you form this habit
Example: establishing a Bible-reading habit
Desired habit – daily Bible reading
Cue – sitting down to lunch at work in the break room
Behaviour – read Bible for five minutes while eating
Reward – knowing your Bible more, understanding something new about God, finding comfort in Scripture