Understanding Habits

Oftentimes, habits speak louder than deliberations. We believe that life’s really important decisions and actions should be carefully thought-out and intentionally executed. Yet we scarcely realize how many important aspects of our lives are on autopilot because of our habits. We eat stuff, we buy stuff. We do things, we do not do things. We think thoughts, we speak words. Why do we do that which we do? “I don’t know. That’s just what I’ve always done.” Although a secular book, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business offers valuable insight into the nature of our habits. What I would like to do here is explain the concept of the habit loop and provide an example of how we might apply this knowledge to our lives. By understanding how God has created habits, we can better cultivate habits that glorify him.

Cues, Routines, and Rewards

Duhigg states that every habit consists of three parts: a cue, routine, and reward. The cue is what prompts us to act out our habit; this cue may be linked to a time, location, your emotional state, a person around you, or an immediately preceding action.[1] The routine is the very acting out of said habit. The reward is what we gain from our action. For Duhigg, his bad habit was eating a cookie every afternoon. He found that his cue was the boredom he felt at the office every day around three or four o’clock. His routine was then to walk down to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and eat it while he chatted with coworkers. Duhigg was able to identify that he actually was not hungry, but instead craved the conversation that broke up his monotonous afternoon. He soon changed his habit by strolling through the office at 3:30 to chat with a friend, thereby skipping the walk down to the cafeteria. And so, the cookie habit crumbled. 

What we can learn from this is that we all respond with a set routine when we encounter certain cues. By identifying these cues and routines, we are in a better position to change bad habits or kickstart new, good habits. Do you habitually complain about your present circumstances? What sets you off? Or to put in the above terms, what is your cue to complain? Examine yourself. Have you been wanting to memorize more Scripture? What existing habits do you have that you could incorporate this discipline into? Jogging? Brushing your teeth? An elevator ride? 

True Change

This is not a self-help message. Changing a habit does not automatically change your heart. You may ditch your habit of eating poorly and start eating healthily without ever disturbing your idols of gluttony or vanity. But habits can point you toward the source for true change: God and his Word. Scripture cuts into our lives like a surgeon’s scalpel (Heb 4:12); and like rain falling on a cornfield, it never fails to produce a crop (Isa 55:10–11). To make it a truly impactful habit, it must direct your heart to all that has been done for you and is promised to you in Christ.


Say you have a habit of bitterly coveting your neighbor’s opulent house and freshly waxed car every morning as you drive by them on your way to work. The cue is that you get in your car at 7:45 AM, and drive down the street, passing your neighbor’s home. Your routine is to look left, gawk at your neighbor’s possessions, and sin. The “reward,” if you want to call it that, is a fantasized image of you owning that house and driving that car, followed by a coddling moment of self-indulging pity because you do not have that house and cannot drive that car.

Now that you have identified this sinful tendency, what do you do? You already know what the cue is, so now you need to change your routine. What are you going to do instead of gawk at your neighbor’s stuff? Although staring dead ahead will get your mind off of the temptation, this will not get at the root of your discontent heart.

How about reciting 2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Pray that as you meditate on this verse, the Holy Spirit will open your heart’s eyes to see the glory of Christ and the beauty of his kindness toward you. For your sake, he who wields shafts of lightning and rides in a chariot of clouds (Ps 18:14; 104:3) dirtied and blistered his feet on Mediterranean soil for thirty-three years. For your sake, he whose royal court is so pleasant and so desirable that a doorkeeper would rather dwell there a single day than live a thousand days in the richest earthly palace (Ps 82:10)—he went to sleep and woke up without so much as a thatch roof over his head (Matt 8:20). I have mentioned the cue and the routine, but what of the reward? What craving should drive this routine? The reward is God himself. We have this reward now, and we will have it in fuller measure in the life to come.

When we see with the eye of faith the Son of Man laying down his own house and his own car so that we might become co-heirs with him, sharing in his abundant wealth, our hearts are filled with gratitude. When our hearts are filled with gratitude, there is no room left for covetousness. We no longer crave the house, the car, the whatever, because we have all this and more in our Lord Jesus Christ. May God use our understanding of habits to help us cultivate the right kinds of habits. May he use these habits to direct our hearts toward the imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance kept in heaven for us (1 Pet 1:4).

[1] Charles Duhigg, “How Habits Work,” http://charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work.