“I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.” James Clear, Atomic Habits, (94).
That’s pretty blunt isn’t it! He explains his conclusion in a chapter entitled, “The Secret to Self Control”:
“You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it. Once the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain, they are nearly impossible to remove entirely—even if they go unused for quite a while. And that means that simply resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy” (94).
That’s pretty hopeless isn’t it!
A Reason for Hope
But it’s not. First, because, even if it’s true that bad habit grooves are engraved in our minds, we can often change our negative environment. Clear highlights research into the people who appear to be the most self-disciplined and self-controlled. Their secret?
It turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations” (92-3).
That gives us all hope doesn’t it?
“The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment” (93).
The secret to self-control, says Clear is, “Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible” (95). And the Christian does this, of course, in dependence upon God for guidance and decisiveness.
A Second Reason for Hope
But there’s a second reason for hope, and that is Romans 12v2: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
As other science has confirmed, our brains are remarkably “plastic” and can be re-wired, re-grooved, or renewed not only by psychological training but by spiritual training. And if anyone has reason to hope here, it’s Christians. After eleven chapters of filling the mind with the most sublime truths, the Apostle Paul says his great point is mind transformation and the great aim is proving, or demonstrating in practical ways, what God’s good will is for us in this world.
This doesn’t guarantee that God will eradicate all the old grooves of sinful habits. He may leave some traces of these to remind us of our past, to humble us, and to keep us dependent upon him for daily deliverance. But it does mean that as we absorb and imbibe God’s truth, we can expect not just internal but external transformation.
The secret to self-control, therefore, is truth-control.