Pleasant Changes in Me



In a science fiction film or novel, we often see a character who arbitrarily controls someone else’ will. What if this happens in reality and our will is controlled by an unknown power?

Today, like every other day, Mr. Joyce is late about five minutes for work. He dozes off throughout the morning, and gets lively when the lunch break starts. After lunch, he stops at a coffee shop and drinks a cup of coffee that is as expensive as a meal. As soon as he arrives home after work, he flings himself down on the sofa and turns on TV. He watches TV till around midnight, having some snacks.

Among his daily tasks listed above, how many things were done by Mr. Joyce’s own will? The answer is nothing. It is because Joyce’s willpower is controlled by something else.

CHAPTER 1. How habits work

What controls Joyce’s willpower is nothing but his habits. People spend most of their time each day doing their habits. The habits are not reasonable behaviors formed by independent thoughts, but instinctive behaviors done almost unconsciously. Joyce is always late for work, dozes off, buys a coffee, eats snacks, and watches TV. All these things are the orders given to his brain by his habit, not by his will.

Habits are created by your brain’s instinct to save energy. Your brain uses much energy by working ceaselessly, especially when you experience something for the first time. In this process, your brain gets greatly stressed because the amount of work that can be processed at a time is limited. So, when you do something repeatedly, your brain stores it as a pattern to save energy. This is a habit.

A habit is created and ingrained through three steps: a cue, a reward, and a routine. For example, a man who has finished his lunch finds a cafeteria for his dry and sticky mouth (cue). He gets some coffee, and relieves his dry mouth (reward). Due to the satisfying reward, he repeats this a few more times (routine), and his brain accepts it as a pattern and builds it as a habit.

When a set of actions repeats, his independent thought changes to an involuntary action by the brain, and the habit is strengthened further. As a result, although his mouth isn’t dry after lunch, he heads for some coffee.

Everyone has unrecognized habits. What we have to pay attention to is how these habits affect our lives. If we only have good habits, that’s great, but if the quality of life declines due to bad habits, we need to correct them. However, it is impossible to dramatically flip flop on the habits set in the brain. As the body tries to maintain the present status in order to settle for familiar routines, it will never welcome a change. So, many people are likely to give up, rationalizing their behavior, “I cannot help because I’ve lived this way,” although they know what they are lacking in. But if they understand how habits work, they can implement a new habit easily.

CHAPTER 2. How to reshape habits

It is not easy to change a habit, but it is not too difficult, either. If you know three parts―a cue, a reward, and a routine of a bad habit, and change them, you can reshape the habit.

First, change the environment of the cue. If you change the environment that leads to a bad habit, you can prevent unwanted cue to some degree. Second, figure out the reward you are craving from the unwanted habit, and take a replacement behavior to get the same reward. Then, you will not want any reward from the wrong habit. Third, give yourself more satisfying rewards out of beneficial behavior. The more satisfying the reward is, the more you will repeat the behavior.

Mr. Joyce resolves to correct his bad habit. First of all, he tries to refrain from buying expensive coffee in order to reduce overconsumption. For this, he walks the street where there is no coffee shop so that he can have no cue at all. And he thinks over what the reward is from such superior quality coffee. ‘Is it just to relieve my dry mouth? Is it because coffee is to my taste?’ The reward identified at the end of the study is surprising. Unexpectedly, it is not coffee itself but relaxation he gets while having a cup of coffee. What is more, coffee is not to his taste. So he decides to replace coffee with adlay tea, which is cheaper and good for health to enjoy the same reward.

What is the reward for the cookie he eats while watching TV? He just needs something to nibble on. Mr. Joyce gets rid of cookies that are not good for health and instead prepares fruit as a new cue. And whenever he wants something in his mouth, he has some fruit to get the same reward.

And in order to have a cue for exercise while watching TV, he puts dumbbells beside the sofa. Whenever he sees the dumbbells, he exercises with them. Naturally, the times of exercising increases and he reaps good health as a valuable reward.

What about his habit of being late for work and dozing off? Surprisingly, most of them have changed a lot without particular efforts. The times of being late have decreased remarkably, and concentration on his work in the morning has improved a lot. Changing his one habit has had a positive effect on his other habits. This is called a chain reaction of a habit1.

1. Chain reaction of a habit: In 2006, Australian scientists Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng assigned volunteers to a two-month program of physical exercise. At the end of two months, participants reported significant decreases in alcohol and caffeine consumption and increases in healthy eating and positive attitudes towards their work. Their thoughtless consumption pattern too changed and their financial state became better. There is no exact reason, but a chain reaction must have occurred even in other behaviors.

If you find out the cues and rewards of your habits and change the vicious circle, your lives will change amazingly within a short period of time.

Then, how long will it take until a habit is transformed completely?

CHAPTER 3. How long does it take to form a habit?

In 2009, an experiment on how long it takes to break the existing habit and build a new habit was carried out at University College London [UCL]. The experiment rule was simple: Write the habits you want to change on a note and check every night if you have made efforts to change it. What the participants should make sure to do was to check it every day during the experiment without missing a single day. Excuses like “I’m tired today” or “It’s hard to do today because of an unavoidable situation” were not accepted.

The experiment concluded that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. Test subjects recorded their notes every night, bearing all the inconvenience of suppressing their wrong life patterns and repeating unfamiliar new behaviors. Through this short period of time, they changed their brain patterns they had had for years or decades, and successfully turned them to totally different directions.

This experiment was also carried out in a broadcasting program in Korea.

A university student who lived in a cluttered room for 20 years began to clean her room every single day for 66 days. As a result, from a certain moment, she found herself cleaning her room without intending to clean.

A middle school student with a low grade at school tried to train himself to study. At first, it was very difficult to sit at the desk and to turn even one page of the textbook. However, 66 days later, the student was, surprisingly, seated at the desk, not at the computer, and he received a higher average grade at the next examination.

The test subjects, who became accustomed to their new habits, said, “Now I feel more comfortable to do this. Otherwise, I feel uneasy and awkward.”

Their brains have created totally new habits. Like these participants, anyone who tries for 66 days with a strong willpower can build a good habit backed by science.

CHAPTER 4. Habits, a mirror of the soul

When the New Year comes, many people set goals and resolve to accomplish them, but many of them cannot keep their resolution longer than a few days. It is because they lack understanding about habits they are accustomed to. The process of failure in accomplishing the spiritual goals is the same. Spiritually wrong habits stop you from benefiting your souls. What you have to do now is to look back over your spiritual habits and correct bad habits that make you grow away from God. “Do I have a habit of grumbling? Do I hate someone unwittingly? Or am I envious or jealous of someone?” If yes, you can change the environmental cues by studying the word of God at least for ten minutes a day, greeting your brothers and sisters with a smile, listening to New Songs, praying to God before going to bed, and the like. Then, much more satisfying rewards will be accompanied.

The Bible teaches, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Ti 4:6–9). You can’t expect something that you haven’t worked on until today to be successful somehow magically tomorrow. But if you understand your habits and try to change them, you should practice from today, not from the first day of the New Year. In order to break the bad habits you have and create new habits that fit the teachings of God, you need strong willpower. When you determine to put into practice small things first, the bad habits that have been controlling you will be weakened. Of course, there must be difficulties in the process, but as long as you don’t give up, new spiritual patterns will be formed before long.

Some of you may not even conceive the idea of trying, as the teachings of God and yourself are quite different. Even so, that is all right. Don’t be so impatient but try at least one thing. If you just take one step with courage and make a change to one behavior, it will activate a chain reaction and cause a shift in other habits. Such chain reaction of a habit is waiting for you.

Let us no longer be controlled by the habits anymore but control them. Then, the kingdom of heaven will be much closer.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperback, 2012
KBS [Korean Broadcasting System], Report on Change of Habits (in Korean, 꼴찌탈출, 습관 변신 보고서), 2009