Book Review: The Power of Habit (Part 2)

One of the things I found most fascinating about Duhigg's The Power of Habit was his insight into how to create habit-change.

He maps out our habitual patters as:
And it's all driven by CRAVING.

Here's an example of one of my bad habits (and Duhigg uses a similar example in his book).

On days when I'm in the office by myself, I often find myself wandering into the kitchen around 3pm for cookies or candy or soda. Those extra calories add up in unhealthy ways over time. If I want to be healthier, I need to change that habit.

How do we normally attempt to change habits?

Option A: We try to cut off the reward.

Here's how this would work in the above example: I could force myself to give away a book every time I go get my snack. This replaces the boost from the snack with a punishment.

But this has been proven to be a poor method for habit transformation. People continue their bad habits despite the consequences. We aren't making rational choices - weighing the pros and cons - before we do the habitual things that aren't healthy for us. We will regret our actions when the consequences hit, but the threat of consequence isn't a guarantee that we'll break free.

Option B: We try to break the cue-routine link.

My cue in the above example is that blah feeling that hits me in the mid-afternoon. That feeling can be caused by a dip in blood sugar, an exhaustion of environmental stimulus, or even loneliness. That's what sends me to the kitchen. But what if the kitchen is empty? There's nothing to say that I have to keep snacks at the office. I'm certainly not going to eat the youth group's snacks and replace them later (umm ... well ... ok).

We try to break bad habits by making the routines unavailable. We throw out the junk food, trash our cigarettes, cut up our credit cards, delete his phone number ... but the habits keep coming back. That's where Duhigg's insight into craving comes in. Our underlying cravings drive our habitual behaviors. If we cut off food in the kitchen, we'll find some in the car or at the gas station or we'll feel miserable. There has to be another way to break bad habits.

Option C: We try to create totally new habits.

What if I decided that I was going to develop new, healthier habits to replace my bad habit? Instead of going to the kitchen when that blah feeling hits in the afternoon, I could set an alarm for 3pm and take a 15 minute bike ride around the office. That would certainly be healthier than eating a handful of Rolos. But what's to keep me from eating the Rolos when I get back to the office?

This approach to habit-change comes closest to what Duhigg recommends, but fails because it doesn't address the underlying craving.

How to change a habit

Duhigg's advice - based on his research - is so insightful and counterintuitive. He says to fulfill the core of the craving by leaving the cue intact and replacing the routine with something that delivers the same reward. So, in the above example, I could replace my Rolos for honeycrisp apples (the world's most perfect apple). When that blah feeling hits and I need a sugar boost, a change of scenery and a chance of human contact, going to the kitchen for an apple would be a healthy move.
I'm going to try this this week, replacing Rolos with Honeycrisps.

What's a habit you'd like to change?

Take a few minutes to identify the cues, rewards and cravings that drive your routines. Can you find a new routine that would deliver the same reward? That give you the highest likelihood of habit change.

In my next (and final) post on this book: I'll share about Duhigg's insight into organization habits and what he calls the "keystone habit."

Afraid to look racist

In Matthew 15, Jesus said several things that sound deeply racist to us.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
And just a moment later:
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
I recently preached on this passage to an InterVarsity student group at Duke University, my alma mater. One of the worst things you can be accused of at Duke is being a racist. In fact, you can make the case that overt racism is the most unacceptable sin in American culture. Accusation of racism derails political campaigns, careers and friendships.

Why would Jesus say something that sounds racist?

Some have argued that Jesus said one thing (the racist stuff) and did something else (welcoming body language / ironic tone). Others have argued that Jesus was just being a good, liberal pluralist (refusing to call the Canaanite woman to Jewish conversion). Neither of these explanations hold water.

Instead, what we see in the passage is something else.

Jesus has an ethnic identity. He is a Jewish man. He remains a Jewish man throughout the interaction with this Canaanite woman. Nothing he said in this interaction would sound strange coming from a Jewish man (at least, not until he gives the woman what she wants, heals her daughter and praises her faith).

Jesus' way of interacting with the woman gave her space to remain a Canaanite. He acknowledged the distance between their communities. He didn't hide from the tension. He didn't pretend she was just like him. He wasn't color blind. He accepted her.

And then, with the stage thus set, Jesus moved toward healing this woman's daughter. He didn't transcend ethnic tension. Instead, Jesus transformed ethnic tension. He leaned into it and moved through it. He made a meaningful connection. And this connection was memorable enough for Matthew to remember it years later.

Jesus wasn't willing to let the fear of appearing racist drive him away from his ethnic identity, push him to ignore others' particularities, or keep him from making connections across ethnic lines.

What are we missing out on when we're afraid to appear racist?

Book Review: The Power for Habit (Part 1)

I've been fascinated with pop psychology since high school. Amazing things happen when the power of psychology is released from the research lab and the counselor's couch.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a great example of what happens when psychology touches down in the real world.

Duhigg plows through a mountain of research to describe what he calls "The Habit Loop."

The Habit Loop starts with a cue (a sound, a smell, a time of day ... anything that will kick the loop into motion). The cue prompts a routine (go get a cookie, smoke a cigarette, write a blog post ... anything that has been associated with the cue and, more importantly, what comes next). At the end of the routine there's a reward (that clean-house smell, the high-five from Mailchimp, the flood of endorphins ... anything pleasurable that follows the routine and can be associated with it).

Cue --- Routine --- Reward

That's The Habit Loop.

Now, by itself, it's not a loop. You need something to connect "Reward" back to "Cue." That's actually where the magic happens, though it doesn't get a ton of attention in the book. If I see McDonalds on my drive to work this morning (cue) and stop for breakfast (routine), I'll get a reward (McMuffin + Frappe). But if I want to develop a McDonalds habit, I'll need something to cultivate a craving.

The world is full of pleasurable experiences. We receive cues signaling the availability of pleasure all of the time. And we turn most of those cues down. We don't text and drive, steal from people or skip work. Even though the pleasures of connection, acquisition and leisure are enormous, they're outweighed by wisdom, moral sense and delayed gratification ... at least, most of the time.

One of my big take-aways from this book was to see the immense power that cravings have in our lives and organizations.

One exercise Duhigg recommends is breaking down some of your bad habits into these four parts: craving, cue, routine, and reward. Most of us are aware of the routine of our bad habits. Some of us pay attention to the cue and reward. But the craving piece is where it really gets interesting.

In my next post, I'll take a look at one of my bad habits, break it down according to the book and show how Duhigg recommends habit transformation.

Dr. King's Measured Mountain of Arguments

Every year, I set aside an afternoon to read and reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

Dr. King acknowledges that the letter is a long letter, but makes this great observation: "What else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?"

In this year's reading, several things jumped out to me, but I'd like to share one of them here.

For those who have read the Letter, have you noticed the strength of Dr. King's level-headed, reasoned arguments? He makes the case for his involvement in Birmingham, for direct action, for breaking unjust laws, and for the church's involvement in desegregation and the racial conversation.

In the midst of such a difficult environment and such an emotionally charged situation, Dr. King's measured mountain of arguments demonstrated his remarkable desire to connect with his readers, rather than to shame them. I wish I had his discipline.

All too often, I - and people in my generation - get so wound up and wounded that we're unable to have real conversations or make meaningful arguments. We're dismissed. And though our causes are just, our voices are not truly heard.

It's not enough for our generation to speak more loudly. We must also make our case well if change is going to happen.

And, of course, this presents a challenge. The loudest voices get the attention, even if they aren't truly heard. Quiet, gentle, reasoned arguments don't get retweeted.

We need to make an effort to seek out those voices, listen to them and share them as we can.

3 Challenges to Starting the Writing Process

On any given week I'll write thousands of words and send them to live on the internet. And, on any given week, I'll experience an almost crippling paralysis in my writing process.

It's tempting to call these periods of paralysis "writer's block." And, maybe, sometimes that might be what it is. But not most days. Most days, it's one of the three challenges ...

  1. I have other work that offers a different kind of reward. Cleaning my desk, emptying my inbox, checking Facebook ... all of these things offer small, immediate rewards for very, very little effort. The pieces I write may take weeks or months to get published and may be published in places where feedback doesn't come immediately (or ever). I'll write more about this when I write my reviews on The Power of Habit, which I finished last week and highly recommend.
  2. I'm trying to write it in my head first. I'll find myself rolling sentences around in my brain, rearranging them and fiddling with them, anticipating responses they might receive. There's something in me that wants to sit and write without editing, to just see perfect words flow onto the screen. But, inevitably, this paralysis will combine with the first - distraction - and the words will never make it out of my head.
  3. I'm afraid of being misunderstood. We live in a world that doesn't value nuance. And a lot of my writing plays in those nuanced spaces, thoughtfully engaged, finding third and fourth positions in polarized conversations. When I fail to express myself well (or people choose not to listen), tempers flare and feelings get hurt, reputations are damaged and truth is misbelieved.
Last night I stayed up late working on a piece for LaFe. I loved the concept, said it clearly and think it will be helpful. It took 30 minutes to write. But I had been putting off writing it for a week.

One night last week - Friday - I had a sleepless night. I went to bed around 9, but didn't fall asleep until 3. It was bad enough that I read 1500 lines of Heany's Beowulf without even feeling drowsy. Why didn't I write then?

Just about everybody has ideas worth writing down and recording. What we lack are strategies for overcoming the challenges that keep us from getting started. Identifying some of my challenges has helped me overcome them.

If you want to journal more or write a memoir or do some blogging or write that newsletter, take some time to identify your getting-started challenges. You might be surprised by how easy they are to conquer when they're brought to light.

I think, I hope

I had an opportunity to have a long conversation about faith with someone this week. He had lots of questions and lots of concerns about Christianity. Even after our conversation, I'm sure he still does.

At one point he asked me: "God loves you, right?"

He said this as an on-ramp to a series of comments about suffering. He paused to let me say the obligatory "Yes" or "Of course" or "He loves every Duke fan." After I answered, he'd turn the question to something like "Well, then, why does he ..." or "why doesn't he ...". I've had this conversation a dozen times. And not only as the one who's being asked the questions. I remember peppering Tommy Frank with questions like these almost 20 years ago.

But I've learned to do something over the years.

Instead of answering with "Yes" or "Of course" or "He'd better," I answer with "I think so. I hope so."

That's a very strange answer for a pastor or missionary to give to the question "God loves you, right?"

And the guy I was talking with picked up on the strangeness. "You don't know? You're not certain?"

This pushed the conversation into a different vein. Instead of positioning myself as God's defender and the guy with answers to all the questions (a role that's so tempting to play because it flatters my ego), my comment positioned me as a fellow seeker. And that's how I view myself.

I believe that God loves me. I have lots of evidence: evidence from Scripture, from experience, from my community. I live my life as if God loves me. But I know I'm playing the odds. 999,999 to 1,000,000 that he loves me. One and a million that I'm mistaken.

I'm not sold on the postmodern idea that says "You can never be certain." It's too easy to deflate that balloon: "Are you certain that you can never be certain?" My comment isn't about philosophy. Instead, it's about posture.

The world needs more people who will hold on to the posture of a seeker - that eagerness and humility and charity - in order to give others space to ask their questions and explore the faith.

That said, there are times when the certainty will wash over me, like a wave sweeping across the beach. I had a moment like this in prayer last week. The wave covers over all the doubt and all the questions, but only for a moment. If asked in that moment if God loved me, I would reply "Right now, I feel like he does, yes."

Perhaps this is why Jesus insisted that his followers would need to rely on the Spirit when giving testimony to him. If the person I'm talking to needs assurance of God's love, God's Spirit can wash over us both like a wave and give us the confidence to claim that we're loved. If the person I'm talking to needs space to explore the Christian faith, God's Spirit can give us the courage to wander the doubt-scattered shore, awaiting the rising of the tide.

What posture do you need to take today?

Book Review: Justification by NT Wright

NT Wright's Justification is a book that I've picked up and put down over and over again for the past several years. Having just finished some of Wright's other books, I thought I'd give Justification another try.

At the core of the book is a conflict between NT Wright and John Piper over several key theological words, concepts and methods. This kind of writing can be tedious to read, but Wright finds ways to make the conversation entertaining. One of the best was a analogy he used of a person who is convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. Can you imagine trying to convince someone that the earth revolves around the sun? They have plain "evidence" on their side every morning and are supported by hundreds and hundreds of years of tradition. What a comparison!

I found Wright's argument utterly convincing. Though, as usual, I think he runs the risk of overplaying his hand, I think he's essentially correct on the following:

- We have to follow Scripture even if it goes against our traditions
- Paul wrote with God's covenant with Abraham in mind
- Paul saw Jesus as fulfilling God's covenant
- Paul was concerned about the Jew/Gentile divide
- Paul uses "justification" and "righteousness" in very specific ways to address his particular concerns (ie. not necessarily ours)

I found that this book challenged me in the same way Barth's Romans challenged me ... how deeply is my reading of Paul influenced by Luther and the controversies of his age? This, at first, may not look like a big deal. But fighting and refighting Martin Luther's battles may leave me ill-equipped for the particular conversations and conflicts that are swirling around me in the present day ... and to which God's word might even now be speaking.

One conversation and conflict that comes to mind is the conversation around a multiethnic church. If all I hear in Paul is the "faith vs. works" conversation, I may miss out on what he has to say about God's multiethnic family, where people of all ethnicities are included in the family because of Christ.

Theological reading isn't for everyone and I wouldn't recommend this book to folks who haven't already spent some time reading Wright or Piper. But I found the book helpful and entertaining (on this reading).

Writing up a storm

I've taken a break for the last several months on this blog in order to do some other writing. Many of you have followed those posts and have commented and given me great feedback. Thanks so much!

I intend to pick back up with this blog this year, shifting the focus a little and writing in some ways that I can't in the other environments where I'm currently writing (InterVarsity blogs, Chatham Church devotionals, etc ...).

Here are some links to some of the other places I'm writing, if you want to check them out as well.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship 
(InterVarsity's national blog, monthly contributor)
How to Help Friends Who Are Hurting
Tips for Kicking the Gratitude Killers
The Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath

Multiethnic Matters: The intersection of race, ethnicity and the Christians faith
(blog for InterVarsity's Multiethnic Ministries, 2x monthly contributor)
A Biblical Perspective on Immigration (Free eBook)
A Quick and Dirty Theological Rationale for Ethnic Specific Ministry
One Surprising Reason We Value Ethnic Specific Ministry

The Connect Devotional
(from Chatham Community Church, emailed M-F, I'm a writer and the editor)
The Creative Image of God
The Fall of Work
God's Work and Ours
click here to subscribe to the Connect Devotional

In addition to all this writing, I've gotten to contribute Reader Reports for two wonderful IVP books that will be released in 2015. I've also done some extensive work on the manuscript I'm working on with my Dad. And, if that wasn't enough, I've produced hundreds of posts and tweets for Chatham Community Church and for LaFe (InterVarsity's Latino Fellowship).

So, if I'm writing 5 blog posts every week, editing one or two more, and producing 50 unique social media posts ... what's left to write?
  • Book reviews: I love reading. Writing reviews helps me process books as I finish them. I'll be writing in less of a "thumbs up, thumbs down" style and more of an "engaging with the ideas" style. We'll see how it goes.
  • Biblical insights: I love reading Scripture and digging into it. I'm finding, however, that I don't have many outlets to share the things I'm learning. The rest of my writing is organizationally driven and, in my church community, I'm hesitant to share what I'm learning due to how that affects group dynamics ("Why isn't the pastor leading the small group?"). But, hey, I figure that I ought to be able to be myself on my personal blog (except when it comes to politics ... I learned my lesson there).
  • Life wrestling-learning-hacks: I love to share what I'm learning about life: leadership, parenting, how to do things. Taking a few minutes to pass along what I'm learning fits my value of generosity. I believe that great things need to be shared. And the world will be a better place if we share ... right?
We'll see what sort of writing 2015 brings!