You are what you repeatedly do… (Part 2: Pillars of Habits)

…Therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”  Aristotle.


Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

Following on from the awesome foundations in Self-Knowledge in Part 1, Rubin goes on to define four pillars that help us build habits into our lives.

Firstly, Monitoring.  This is an essential tool for self-knowledge.

“Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control” p. 45

Rubin cites examples from research on monitoring such things as diet and exercise, as well as her own experience with using an UP band to track her movement and sleep.  Importantly, she clarifies who this technique works best with :  Upholders and Questioners top the list.  Obligers won’t derive much benefit unless being held accountable by an external authority, and Rebels only if they really want to.  For myself, I find this tool helps me somewhat, although I do fall into the knack of not always measuring accurately:

Unsurprisingly, we tend to underestimate how much we eat and overestimate how much we exercise.”p.46

Using tools for measurement don’t just work for diet, sleep and exercise as Rubin mentions.  They work in the spiritual life as well, although we have to define the right parameters for what we will measure.  This is important, lest legalism and rigidity set in, which is the opposite to the goal of an authentic Christian life.  Ticking the wrong boxes can be one way to end up on the Christian Rat Race Superhighway, contributing to burnout and disillusionment. One positive example I have seen of this is using the following measures of success for family prayer after the 33 days consecration.


The Second pillar:  Foundation.  Rubin strongly advises that in order to foster habits of excellence we must lay a good foundation starting with these:  sleep, movement, eating & drinking, and decluttering.  These need to be in order before loftier goals can be set, and she’s got a point.  If I want to improve my spiritual life by getting in more prayer time or my intellectual life through more study, but I am not actually even able to get enough sleep then how can I expect to have the energy to commit to this?  So often I find myself “tripping over my shoelaces” as I try to aim for goals when I don’t have the basics in order.  I find for me these basics must be constantly revisited.  What good am I in service to the Lord outside my home if I can’t even manage my own “house” (i.e. my body and immediate surroundings)?

The Third pillar:  Scheduling.  The opening quote for this chapter is a great one from the brilliant Flannery O’Connor

“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do.  I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with these two hours, at the same time and the same place.”  p.74

Setting aside time makes the acquisition of a habit far more likely to succeed.  Whether it be a monthly, weekly, or daily habit, the routine of this vastly reduces the energy needed to implement any new regime.

God is, of course, the ultimate scheduler.  Using time to great effect in order to bring about the habit of His kingdom, and helping us to do things well.

“Remember to keep holy Sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you. In six days the Lord made the heavens and earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day He rested. That is why the Lord has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex 20:8-11). Source

Living the Liturgical Year is a great way to do this in family life.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church also fleshes out in the Precepts of the Church, a schedule to make healthy spiritual habits very much a part of the rhythm of our lives:

The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbour: The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor”) requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honouring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.  The second precept (“You shall confess your sins at least once a year”) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.  The third precept (“You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season”) guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and centre of the Christian liturgy.  The fourth precept (“You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.  The fifth precept (“You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church”) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.  Catechism of the Catholic Church 2041-2043

The Fourth Pillar: Accountability.  Rubin makes a powerful point that scheduling really needs pairing with accountability in order to be more successful.

“It’s not enough to schedule a habit;  we must actually follow that habit.  Accountability means that we face consequences for what we’re doing – even if that consequence is merely the fact that someone else is monitoring us… If we believe someone’s watching, we behave differently.” p.91

Again, what a gift in the Church in this area, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  This is like the ultimate way God can help me to be accountable, by ensuring His representative is a conduit of HIs own presence in all the dark corners of my life that I would rather hide away, but I know that when I do this, my own growth is stunted.  In less weighty areas but also important, someone to help us track our basic foundational habits can be a huge help as well.

In the next section Rubin addresses the question of, “When Is the Best time to Begin a new habit?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s