How long does it take to create a habit? In the 1970s a book called “Psycho-Cybernetics” set forth the 21-day idea for creating a habit. The problem with this number is that is not based on solid research. Brain Pickings reviewed a book that suggests it can take anywhere from 21 days to 254 days to form a habit, depending on how hard the particular habit is and how badly the person wants to form it.
Developing spiritual habits is harder for me than I’d like to admit. Some are engrained and I do them almost without thinking, like praying for help in a crisis or trying not to speak with words that dishonor God. Some are conscious choices but don’t feel difficult because I have made the same choice so often, like tithing or reading my Bible in the morning. Others are much harder and I often forget about them entirely, so they aren’t habits but I’d like them to be, like fasting or spending more concentrated, focused time in prayer.
I don’t think it is easy for my Muslim friends to form the habits of praying five times a day or fasting for an entire lunar month each year. I also don’t think all of them follow through on these disciplines, just like few Christians spend that concentrated time in prayer or go without food for a significant period of time on a regular basis.
In Islam, each prayer time is roughly the same, some are a bit longer and some contain more spontaneous interaction with God, but the overall structure of the prayer is consistent from time to time, from day to day. There is a steady, unbreakable constancy to the rhythms, movements, and words as well as to the time of day. Like the stomach starts to growl around noon because it has developed the habit of being fed then, my friends who pray consistently feel a stirring in their spirit at regular intervals throughout the day.
When the habit is developed, the body and soul start to anticipate the experience. Of eating, of praying, of giving.
Some might assume the ritual prayer to be dry and rote because of this daily consistency and constancy, and this is true, for some and some of the times. But going through the motions anyway, maintaining the attitude of seeking God opens up the spirit for a fresh taste of him.
My pastor in the US used to say, If you don’t feel like praying or singing, pray and sing, and while you do it, ask God to change your attitude. In other words, be consistent and ask God to meet you in your weakness.
When something is done consistently, there is less room or time or energy spent on making decisions about it. When it is time to pray, and prayer has been done many times before, you pray. When it is time to get dressed and you have dressed modestly many times before, you dress modestly. When it is time to fast and you have fasted many times before, you fast.
I have many examples of consistency in these things from people who have invested in my faith – parents, pastors, teachers, and friends. And now I am grateful to be surrounded by people again, here in Djibouti, who aim at pursuing God with a challenging and motivating consistency.
They help me to waver less and to trust that God will meet me in my weakness while I am acting according to my spiritual desires, even in the moments I might feel spiritually dry.
How do you maintain consistency in your spiritual practices? What are the most challenging things for you to do on a regular basis? (for me: fasting and focused prayer continue to be struggles)
*image via Flickr