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Food For Your Soul
The Expository Teaching Ministry of Dr. D. Richard Ferguson 

Spreading & deepening delight in Christ

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4 Steps to Break a Bad Habit—For Good
By D. Richard Ferguson

We all have them—those stubborn, besetting sins that just seem to always get the best of us. They can range from an annoying habit you wish you could kick, all the way to a full-blown addiction that's ruining your life.

Whatever the severity, the principles for lasting change are the same.

Every January, millions of people make resolutions to change, and most go by the wayside well before the arrival of February. Why? It’s because they resolve to change, but they don’t make any actual plans for change. David Ramsey says, “Resolutions don’t work. Goals do.” That’s a good statement, but I would add, “goals and plans for how to reach those goals. That’s how you make progress.

Proverbs 21:5 The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.

Most people put more thought into planning a vacation or finishing their basement than they put into making changes in their character. If you just make a resolution to change without doing any planning and then applying diligence to carrying out those plans, that’s what the proverb means by “haste.” And haste will lead to failure.

One reason why mere resolutions so often fail has to do with the way God designed our brains. Most of our behavior throughout the day does not come from a series of conscious choices. Rather, the majority of what we do is driven by habit. For every conscious decision you make, there are a hundred other things you do without giving any thought at all to them.

The ability to live this way is a wonderful gift from God. Recall the first time you drove a car. Seat belt, emergency brake, check mirrors, foot on brake pedal, shift into gear… the number of things you had to think about was overwhelming. It seemed almost impossible. But now you can do it all in the dark while carrying on a conversation and turning down the radio. This is because God designed our brains so that when a behavior is repeated enough times it develops a neural pathway like a deep rut in a road that enables you to do that behavior on autopilot, without conscious thought. Life would be impossible without this ability.

The problem comes when those ruts (habits) are dug in wrong directions. Every time a destructive behavior such as getting drunk, viewing porn, or eating too much is connected with a sensation of pleasure, it strengthens the neural pathway. It digs that rut deeper and pulls behavior in that direction in your automatic responses.

This is why, in the words of John Ortberg, “Habits eat willpower for lunch.”  Resolutions rarely work because once the wheels fall into the deep ruts of habit, steering them back out is next to impossible. The very design of our brains contributes to the stickiness of sin.

The good news is that the neural pathways can be changed. The key is to back up to the point where the rut first begins in the road, and, through repetitive behavior, begin digging new ruts—building new neural pathways that cause your unconscious, habitual reactions to be godly.

You can dig new ruts—ones that go the way you want them to go. Here's how to do it successfully:

1. Pinpoint where the bad ruts begin

Think about the behavior you want to change. At what point does your autopilot take the first turn in the wrong direction? What feelings tend to cause responses of dropping into those ruts? For an overeater, it might be a response to boredom or stress. For a drinker, perhaps it is the well-worn left turn that happens in responding to emotional pain, or social pressure. For the porn addict, it might begin with certain habits on the computer where one thing leads to another.

In most cases, the ruts in the road are related to how you have trained your brain to respond to various feelings. When we feel anger, emptiness, sexual desire, pain, boredom, fear, or anxiety, we begin moving down well-worn paths in the way our minds respond, that lead into the behaviors that we wish we could quit but keep falling into. Begin by discovering what usually triggers your habit.
2. Set clear, measurable, attainable goals

This might sound obvious—“My goal is to kick this habit.” That’s not specific enough. The goals should relate to how you respond to the triggers you found in step 1.

Those feelings that trigger your habit are going to come—that’s life. The key is to respond to them the right way. But to do that, you have to have a clear idea in mind of what the right response would be. Give careful thought to what it would look like to react in a better way to those feelings—a way that would move you in the direction of your goal.

Make sure you get this on paper. You will need to see it in front of you in moments of temptation.
3. Action steps

Here’s where the planning comes in. If your goal is a fun vacation on the beach, you plan out the steps that will bring that result (get time off work, book a flight and hotel, etc.). If you want a finished basement, you plan out the steps to getting that done. And if you want to start responding differently to certain feelings, it requires the same kind of planning.

Write down three or more action steps that would wake up your conscious mind at those crucial moments (so you’re not on auto pilot when those kinds of feelings come up—you’re making conscious decisions) so you can steer in the right direction before you drop into the old ruts.

4. If You're Addicted

If you have tried to change and failed, you're stuck. Whether you call it an addiction or a besetting sin, some behaviors just seem to be extra stubborn when you try to change.

I have counseled many addiction cases over the past 25 years, and recently put together an online course that will take you step-by-step through the counseling process, including 35 instructional videos. 

Intensive counseling for addiction can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. I am currently making this course available for a one-time cost of $39. All lessons and videos are downloadable and yours to keep. 


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