The Golden Rule of Habit Change
Did you know that the key to getting rid of bad habits can be found in the Bible? There is no mention of God in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, but one of the author’s core insights instantly reminded me of a famous bible passage. First I’ll explain the concept, then how it ties in to God’s word.
A main takeaway from the Power of Habit is this: habits are made up of three parts. First is the cue, which is something that triggers you to go ahead with the habit, then the routine, which is the action or habit itself; and lastly the reward, something pleasant that happens as a result of the habit.
For example, a habit could be grabbing free donuts at work whenever they are available even if you’re not hungry. The cue would be the amazing sweet smell or even seeing the box they come in. The routine would be walking over to the donuts and snatching one up. The reward would be biting into that soft, mouth-watering goodness.
Duhigg explains that if you have this habit of eating donuts, you can’t fix it by simply avoiding donuts. This is what a lot of people try to do when they go on a diet. What ends up breaking their anti-donut streak is that eventually they are faced with free donuts again, despite their best efforts to avoid them. Avoidance is a superficial fix that never works long term. Instead, we need to follow what Duhigg calls the Golden Rule of Habit Change:
“Keep the cue, provide the same reward, insert a new routine.”
You have to take the cue of seeing the donuts and establish a totally different routine that will result in an equally satisfying reward. An example of a successful habit change in this situation is having a stash of your all time favorite (healthy) snack at your desk.
When you smell those donuts, you can get into the routine of grabbing for that snack, and experience a similar reward of eating something delicious. This could end up weird if you are out and about and pass a donut shop and start craving *insert favorite snack,* but that’s a risk you have to take if you’re passionate about quitting donuts.
The moral of the story is, without even realizing it, the sight of donuts is your brain’s cue to follow the routine of grabbing one and enjoying that sugary goodness. It doesn’t matter that you have made the decision to not eat them, your old habits will take over if you haven’t replaced them with good ones.
The Biblical Concept
The passage I was reminded of as I learned about this theory on habits can be found in Matthew chapter twelve. Jesus is preaching to the pharisees and says:
43 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. 44 Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.”
Jesus is illustrating that if and when we take destructive things out of our lives, we must fill them with something else. We can’t clean house without being intentional with how we spend our time in the absence of sin. It is too easy for us to slip back into our old ways and become even worse off than we were before.
This is the same concept of the Golden Rule of Habit Change. God knows that in order to get rid of bad habits we need good ones to take their place. If you get rid of a bad routine and do not introduce a new one, the old habit will find it’s way back to you. He illustrates this so vividly by saying our mind is “empty, swept, and put in order.” This shows that even our most genuine attempts to get rid of something, despite our mind being “put in order,” won’t mean anything if we don’t fill it with something good.
It is exciting to learn concepts that appear to be novel only to realize that God had already told us in His word. As C.S. Lewis famously said, “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine.” He creates us and knows how we are wired and what we need. Solomon says regarding the human condition, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Anything that science or psychologists have figured out, God has known since the beginning.