One of the unique features of human beings is our ability to program ourselves. The neural pathways we use most get reinforced. This means that we can decide to acquire a new behavior — like flossing our teeth, or doing yoga, or tidying up — and that behavior becomes a habit. At some point, we no longer have to “decide” to do something, because our previous selves made a good decision for us!
I was reminded of this last year when I began intermittent fasting. One morning I found myself in the kitchen, eating tortilla chips, without any memory of how I got there. It was automatic! I never “decided” to break my fast. It just happened. There was never a moment where my “will power” failed because I wasn’t even conscious of the decision. It opened my eyes to how difficult it is to change behavior, and that I would need other strategies to help me acquire this new fasting habit.
But we can reprogram ourselves the same way, so that good behaviors also become habits. I remember being a kid and how I hated to “waste” time brushing my teeth. I am grateful to that kid for creating that habit. I no longer feel that caring for my teeth or my body is wasted time.
A good life is built out of such habits. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says that good habits are like compound interest: they don’t seem to make much difference after one day, but after a year the results are hard to ignore. We don’t need to make huge changes to our lives at the New Year. Tiny, incremental changes over time make huge differences in our lives.
This is why God told the Israelites about the commandments, “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Linking a new behavior to an old behavior was a way of repeating and reinforcing. Making it part of a community practice was a way to create habits of mind that would make people truly free.
People can debate whether we have free will or whether our actions are predetermined, but this much is undeniable: when we “program” our brains with good habits, we feel more free. When we program ourselves with bad habits, we feel constrained. I believe that freedom is not just having unlimited options and choosing something at random. Freedom is the experience of our own power to create change.
Addiction destroys this sense of freedom. We find ourselves doing the thing we hate because something has hijacked our brains’ programming. This “something” can be a drug, a cell phone screen, or the excitement of gambling. It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to create new neural pathways and reinforce different behaviors instead, and it is especially difficult to do on our own with conscious “will power.” We need external supports, reminders, human contact, to give us new options and expand our freedom.
Acquiring a habit can be like hacking a new path through a forest. It is slow, difficult going. But years of daily walking along that path make it wider and more permanent. It is the same way with creating new neural pathways and new habits.
God who liberates and sanctifies, make us both free and disciplined.
—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.