We all want good daily habits. But instead we sleep in, check our email in bed, and have “just one more.” So, how do we start breaking bad habits and start making good daily habits? Isn’t there a simple three-step plan or a good habits list that will set me free? Not really. But there is hope—both practical and spiritual hope that you can have—and this article is full of both! Just like dominoes, there are lots of tiny, daily, doable steps that make a huge difference.
Here’s a tip. As you make your way through this post, pay attention to your feelings. If you feel defensive, make note of what you’re reading. If you feel hope, take note. If you feel hopeless, take note. We believe God is alive and still works in us today. Listen closely and He will give you exactly what you need.
One more tip. This is a longer post, but more importantly, breaking bad habits and making good daily habits is a lifelong process. Powering through this content in the next few minutes and never coming back might not help you too much. You may get to one part and need a few days to put it into action. Just bookmark this in your browser or save it to the home screen on your phone, and start working your way through.
Last tip. Here’s what you’ll find in this guide: some of the best books on habits, what the Bible saysabout habits, why you can’t just stop your bad habits, how to break bad habits, how to make good habits one step at a time, the importance of keystone habits, a good habits list, and of course we’ll answer the philosophical question, “What is a habit?”
To find the meaning of habits, let’s think about what they do. Habits always serve some kind of biological, spiritual, or practical purpose.
You’re like, “Wait, what about picking your nose in traffic?” Well, even though it’s gross, the nose gets cleaned out and stress is mitigated. There is a purpose. A more positive example of a habit is brushing and flossing your teeth. There are many biological and practical benefits of brushing your teeth—like better smelling breath, healthier teeth, removing that clam chowder taste in your mouth, and lower dental bills. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit goes so far as to makes a case that flossing and brushing your teeth is one of five keystone habits that will radically alter your life for the better! By the way, if you’re into this habits thing, Charles has been a great inspiration on how habits work. We’ll get to keystone habits in a bit.
So what is a habit then? A habit is formed when you consistently meet an important need with a chosen behavior. Let’s break this down into an example of a good habit and a bad habit.
Bad habit example: picking your nose.
The important needs are mostly keeping your nose clean and calming nerves. The chosen behavior is inserting your finger into your nose. Do this consistently and you have a habit.
Good habit example: complimenting your spouse’s wardrobe.
Again, there are plenty of important needs like survival, the need to not sleep on the couch, and others, but let’s just say the need is to foster a loving relationship. The chosen behavior is finding kind words to describe the way your husband or wife chose to dress. Repeat this before work, on every date, or when they’re leaving the house, and you’ve got a good habit.
There are many reasons bad habits are so hard to break and good habits are hard to make. Chemicals, biological processes, environmental contributors, and brain science studies can each explain some reasons. All of that is important—but let’s keep it simple. Habits are hard to break because, as we just learned above, they’re meeting an important need.
Even the worst of our habits are somehow in response to a real need in our lives. If you can get to the very root of a habit, you’ll often find an identity issue.
So what can we do about our habits? Instead of jumping into a bunch of “dos” we need to slow down and address the “who” issues. Maybe you haven’t fully forgiven someone. Maybe you have some long-term pain. Maybe you were terribly mistreated or abused. Maybe you were never taught certain things. Maybe you’re telling yourself you hate running, or you’ll always be addicted or overweight. Whatever it is, there’s a real identity battle that creates real needs in your life. Remember, even the bad habit you want to replace is somehow giving you a reward. It’s probably not a good reward, but it’s a reward. Because of this relationship between identity, need, habit, and reward, you can’t just stop a bad habit, you have to address the identity issues as you replace bad habits with good ones.
This short section has no chance at summing up what the Bible offers on this topic, but let’s look at five key themes you’ll find throughout the Bible.
Isolation is a bad habit. Hebrews 10:24-25 makes it plain that neglecting to be part of a community of faith is not just the lack of a habit; it’s the presence of a habit. The original Greek word used for “habit” here is éthos which implies something that’s become a custom, that may even be prescribed by law. This lines up with the idea that habits serve a purpose—they’re a prescription for something. Good habits, like becoming a part of a faith community, are good medicine. Bad habits, like isolating ourselves when we’re struggling, only make us sicker.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25
Good daily habits are from God. Habits can be really good because the idea came from God. The very rhythm of God’s creation story in Genesis 1 and 2 is full of good daily habits. God followed healthy, life-giving patterns each day. Just in this one story, God illustrated habits of excellence, persistence, asking others for help (Adam named the animals; God said it isn’t good for man to be alone and created Eve), stopping to celebrate what you’ve accomplished (God saw that His work was good each day), and taking a day each week just to rest. As you read the Bible, continue looking for good habits throughout, and you’ll realize they’re a gift from God. Actually, 2 Timothy 1:7 spells out that it was God who gave us the gift of self-control.
… for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 TImothy 1:7
Temptation isn’t from God. To the extent that good habits are from God, temptation that leads to bad habits is not from Him.
Whenever you feel tempted to do something bad, you should not say, “God is tempting me.” Evil cannot tempt God, and God himself does not tempt anyone. James 1:13
Bad habits are bad masters. We tend to start bad habits out of a desire for personal freedom. We want to do whatever we want. If I want to roam the halls looking for something sweet, then I’m going to do it! But what happens? We end up with less freedom, mastered by sugar—or something else.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12
There is a way out. What Charles Duhigg refers to as the “habit loop” can feel endless and impossible to escape. We all know what it’s like to feel stuck in a habit, making the same mistakes over and over. It can feel like there’s no way out. But God provides a way out. This doesn’t mean you won’t have to do any work, but it does mean that He is good and worth following out of the habit loop.
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13
There a lot of really great books on this topic. Here are just a few of the best books on habits.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
How do we make good habits? There’s not a one-size equation for making and breaking habits, but the most important variables are humility, honesty, and and asking for help. You’ll need humility to admit you can’t solve things on your own. You’ll need the honesty to tell God and others the depths of what you’re up against. Finally, you’re going to need to accept help from God, from others, and from guides like this. You can’t keep doing what you’re doing and expect good habits to magically form themselves. You’re going to have to accept and act on outside help. Speaking of help, there’s a lot of really helpful information and ideas in the books above, but here’s a simple acronym to help you get rid of bad habits and start good daily habits.
Many bad habits are there to cover or cope with something unhealthy in your identity. Porn addiction is not just about sexual need. Alcoholism, comfort eating, and even bingeing on entertainment is often a way to cope with something deeper. Constantly checking your phone is not just because there’s always super interesting information on your phone. As you begin to break a bad habit and replace it with a good one, it’s time also to open up about pain, confusion, or anger with people you trust. Let’s dig deep enough not only to replace the old habitual behavior, but also to address whatever identity issues the old habit was trying to solve or soothe. Pastor Craig Groeschel often says, “When you know who you are, you’ll know what to do.” It’s time to heal up open wounds by acknowledging them, forgiving, and believing what God says about us. But, you may not be able to see these wounds alone. Which leads us to the next step.
Ask for help
You’ll have no problem keeping your bad habit on your own; breaking it is going to require others. Actually, trying to do stuff on your own is a habit worth breaking in and of itself! You might be able to knock out two habits in one. Ask some close friends, family, or even coworkers you trust to check in with you and ask you how you’re doing. Maybe you need to join a specific recovery support group, a LifeGroup, or get into a good church. A good rule of thumb is: The more personally destructive the habit, the more people you’ll need help from.
Be kind to yourself
Making good daily habits is not a perfection zone. On the day that you slip up, be kind to yourself. Don’t give into negative self-talk and self-hatred. Take this as an opportunity to dig a little deeper into whatever the bigger issue is. Spend some more time healing up and asking for help. Think of it as an opportunity for growth, deeper healing, and another chance to reinforce a good daily habit that stands up to all sorts of difficulty. Just like when you get a cold and your immune system gets stronger, this is an opportunity for the self-control that God gave you to grow and get stronger.
Investigate and make changes
This step is part of finding healing for your identity, but it takes it to another level. You may have thought you got to the bottom of your eating, spending, procrastinating, bingeing, or whatever. You identified the bad habits. You dug deeper to find some pain, started forgiving, began healing, and you developed a new habit to replace the old one. But maybe something still seems off. Maybe you feel like a joyless robot, just trying to get through life. Maybe you feel like you’ve only solved problems at the surface. Maybe the drinking stopped but you’ve gone to something else negative to cope. Maybe the old habit just won’t give and the new one just won’t set in. It’s time to investigate and make changes. Remember to keep being kind to yourself and asking for help through this process.
As you investigate, you might not have any changes to make just yet. Don’t change what’s working. Do keep repeating what is! Only make changes to your new habits that propel you toward health, growth, and a meaningful life connected to God and others.
Trust the God-process
Habits tend to get a bad rap, but they’re actually a process God created. Let’s call them a God-process. You should trust that God is in the process of working something new and beautiful in your life as you discover healthy identity, ask for help, be kind to yourself, investigate, and trust His process. Processes like developing good daily habits are not something we make up to avoid needing God’s help—they exist because of His help. When we trust and obey God with our good daily habits they become God-processes. Without God’s help, all of our best efforts can become a self-salvation project—the worst kind of habit there is.
Small Wins Every Day
Small disciplines done consistently lead to big results over time. In his book Atomic Habits James Clear argues relentlessly for the power of small, daily wins. He challenges us to become one percent better each day. Pastor Craig says, “Small disciplines done consistently lead to big results over time.” If you want to run a marathon one day, create an identity goal to enjoy running and a small keystone habit of running at least one minute each day for the first week of your habit. Make your new habit easy and obvious. Allow yourself to grow in strength and discipline incrementally—one day at a time.
The fastest way to comprehend keystone habits is to learn what a keystone is. If you’re in construction or architecture, you can fact-check our definition. A keystone is an architectural term for the wedge-shaped stone that would sit at the top and center of an arch of bricks or stones. Each stone in the arch pushes its weight toward the keystone. The triangular shape of the keystone’s wedge causes the entire arch to be supported. If you remove the keystone, the entire structure falls down. In biology, a keystone species is one that entire ecosystems depend on. Likewise, a keystone habit provides support for other habits. Here is a list of keystone habits to consider. What keystone habits do you already have in place? Which will you add? What keystone habits would you add to this list?
As we mentioned earlier, James Clear wrote Atomic Habits with an important premise. He suggests through research and example stories that habits, like the atoms that make up our world, are best when they’re small, incremental pieces that fit together into a healthy whole. So, instead of just deciding to stop drinking, or stop smoking, or whatever, James would suggest you create a series of very small but related habits that work together to reach your ultimate goal of quitting an addiction, losing weight, or using your phone less.
Okay, we get it. You can’t just stop old habits. You need new, incremental, meaningful habits to replace them. But how do I keep those new habits? Well, you’ve actually just read many of the answers to this question.
We need to realize what a habit actually is, and we need to decide which habits we want to change.
A habit is formed when you consistently meet an important need with a chosen behavior. Write your answers to these questions: What behaviors am I regularly choosing that I don’t want to choose anymore? What triggers those behaviors? What important needs am I trying to meet with those behaviors? What new habits do I want to replace those behaviors with?
We need to acknowledge unmet needs, and we need a healthy identity.
The more difficult the habit is to break, the more likely it’s tied to something deeper that needs healing. This is going to require humility, honesty, and hunger for change. Bring trusted people into your life. Talk to a counselor, a pastor, a healthy friend, and people you love about areas where you may need healing. Use tools like Words to Live By to invite God into these places so you can replace lies and negative self-talk with the truth of God’s Word.
Your new H.A.B.I.T.S will take time.
In addition to discovering healthy identity and asking for help, you need to be kind to yourself when you experience setbacks, investigate whether or not your new habits are getting to the root of things, and trust the processes and small wins that God is using to renew and reshape you over time.
Find a good companion Bible Plan and book as you get started.
Whether it’s one of the books we mentioned above, a habits Bible Plan, or something very specific to the habits you’re looking to make and break, you’re going to need some daily help and reminders. Bible Plans are awesome because they go everywhere your phone goes and keep you in the Bible. Books are helpful because they can take longer to finish and can become a long-term companion to your habit-making-and-breaking journey.
Identify which keystone habits you need to make or tweak.
You have habits that set you up either to succeed or to fail in your other habits. This is where good daily habits come in. Things like waking up with enough time for a healthy morning routine, reading the Bible daily, connecting with God through prayer, speaking the truth to yourself, exercising, and others.
We believe in you. There’s a God in heaven who loves you. And there are people around you who care about you.