Habits to Live By (4th in a Series)

Worth Green,Th.M. D.Min.

Habits are automatic, or semi-automatic behaviors that make up 40% of all that we do. We do hundreds of things by habit everyday. Some habits are more important than others. They are the foundation upon which other habits are built. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business and in Life, Charles Duhigg calls these foundational habits keystone habits.

You know what a keystone is. A keystone is the wedge shaped stone in the middle of an arch that keeps all the other stones in place. A keystone habit is the habit that keeps all other habits in place and makes them more effective.

Keystone habits affect individuals and organizations. For instance, most Christians will tell anyone who asks that prayer is a keystone habit. This is true whether we spend large blocks of time in prayer, like members of a monastic community, or whether we pray in groups, or with a partner, or whether we “Pray without ceasing,” (1st Thessalonians 5:17 KJV) and send up dozens of short prayers in the course of a day.

For more than four decades one of my keystone habits was running. I ran to deal with stress, and to stay reasonably fit, and I think running helped me survive and thrive after a typical Green family heart attack. I had that heart attack more than five years ago. I knew when I had the heart attack, though I did not know it was a heart attack. It did affect me physically; the next day I could run only half my normal distance. Because I did not know that it was a heart attack I did not report it to my doctor until it showed up on my EKG during a physical several years later. My GP scolded me soundly, told me to leave off running for the day, and sent me to a cardiologist the very next morning. After putting me through the mill, the cardiologist said my heart showed no damage, and was the heart of a much younger man. She asked what I did for heart health. I told her that I ran. She said, “By all means, keep it up!” I ran for my health, but running was more than that. Running was my time in nature’s cathedral. It was a time of prayer, and reflection, and it was the time I planned my day. This is one of the reasons I seldom ran with an iPod, and it is the reason that I was a morning runner. If did not get in my run before coming into the church office, I rarely got in my run, because my planning (and some of my praying) had already been done and exercise alone was not always a big enough motivation. Not only so, but if I waited until the afternoon, I had often used up my fund of will power. We will speak more about that “fund of willpower” in just a few minutes.

Organizations have keystone habits, too; and wise leaders are able to zero in on the right habits upon which to build an organization. Duhigg talks about Paul O’Neil. When O’Neil took over Alcoa Aluminum it was down, and almost out. At the first shareholders meeting, he shocked everyone. He did not give the standard new CEO speech. He did not talk about improved technologies, or streamlining production. He did not talk about adding profits and building up the bottom line. He talked about employee safety. O’Neil said that Alcoa workers worked with metals that are 1500 degrees and machines that can rip a man’s arm off. He said that his number one goal was to go for zero employee injuries. O’Neil then stopped his presentation and pointed out the safety exits in the room. Eventually someone raised a hand and asked about inventories in one of the divisions, and some one else asked about the company’s capital ratios. O’Neil persisted:

“If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing you need to look in the workplace. If we bring injury rates down, it won’t be because of some kind of cheerleading, ….it will be because the individuals in the company have agreed to become a part of something important. They devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be the indicator that we are changing our habits across the entire institution. That is how we should be judged.”

One investment councilor recalls how, after that meeting, he rushed out and called every one of his investors, telling them to sell Alcoa before everyone else did. He later said that it was the single worst call in his entire financial career. By the time Paul O’Neil left Alcoa in 2000, profits had increased 5 times over, that is 500%! Employees responded to the call for additional safety. They recognized the company cared about them, and they, in turn, cared about the company! Accidents declined, profits soared, and the corporate climate was one of the best in the world. Not only so, but it was safer to work at Alcoa pouring hot metal than it was to work in many software companies designing computer progams!

We have already seek that Moses knew the importance of habits, and that he knew more than a little about habit formation. Moses never used the word, “keystone, ” but I think Moses understood the importance of keystone habits. According to the Talmud Moses laid down 613 laws (mizvot) from the LORD in the Torah that formed Israel into a people, and shaped their life as a community. Then, at God’s prompting, Moses put ten of those laws at the absolute forefront of the people’s thinking, making those ten laws what we might call keystone habits. You know them as the Ten Commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me. 2) You shall not make for yourself a graven image. 3) You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain. 4) Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 5) Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you. 6) You shall not kill. 7) You shall not commit adultery. 8) You shall not steal. 9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 10) You shall not covet. The life of Israel, and many other nations besides are built around these commandments.

The Ten Commandments were never intended to be burdens. Rather, they were intended to protect people from one another, and from themselves. Yet, the Ten Commandments are more than protection: They are keystone habits. Remember, in an arch, the keystone is the stone that supports all the others. Without the keystone, the whole arch will come tumbling down. So it is with the Ten Commandments and the Law!

Many other nations have adopted a code similar to that adopted by the Jews. These laws are written into the fabric of the universe and without the civilization would crumble. Some see this more than others. They represent the keystone habit of many.

Perhaps you recall an incident some years ago in which the Congress of the United States decided to allow the various branches of the military services to drop criminal proceedings against officers and enlisted personnel that committed adultery. The Marines immediately responded, “We will not do that, for our motto, ‘Semper Fidelis,’ or ‘Always Faithful,’ applies in every area of life. “ The Marines said that faithfulness in the bedroom shored up faithfulness on the battlefield. The keystone habit of the Marines is faithfulness, period. That is pretty obvious to all who come into contact with them.

Let me give you another example of a keystone habit. This one works in business. I have a friend who I regard as one of the best salesmen in the world. I asked him his secret.

“It is simple. I tell myself that everyone who walks through the front door of my store has enough money to buy me out from wall to wall. I say this to myself regardless of how a customer dresses, or talks.”

He has the right attitude. It is a moneymaker. Those that lack his secret of sales success not only miss many a sale, but they don’t even know they are missing those sales. I have a friend whom many of you know. He used to be the head usher at Fries Memorial. He stands six feet six inches tall, and though he was a business executive, on his days off, he ordinarily dressed in bib overalls. One day back in the late 1970’s he went to his bank and drew out $10,000 dollars in cash. He put the money into the pockets of his bib overalls and drove his aging Chevy step-side truck to a now defunct Datsun dealership to buy a 280Z. My friend told me that he stood in the center of the showroom for a half-hour, completely ignored by sales people that he watched rush to assist better-dressed patrons. He then got into his old truck and drove to Mt. Airy where he paid cash for his new 280Z.

Now some keystone habits are more important than others. Charles Duhigg says that dozens of studies show that will power (or self-control) is the single most important factor in successful living. This is good because will power is like a muscle that can be developed. The more you use your will power, the more will power you will have.

This is at the core of habit formation and habit change. As a result of this series of sermons I have made a major change in my lifestyle. I have any stopped drinking on a regular basis any drink that contains caffeine. When I started this series I was living on large doses of caffeine, and sleeping four hours a night if I was lucky. At least part of my problem was what some call “adjustment insomnia.” This means that one is under some stress, and one’s brain is running so fast, that one cannot stop it at night. But the other part, the major part of my problem was the “substance insomnia” caused by all the coffee that I was drinking.

So, two weeks ago today, I quit caffeine cold turkey. For the first five days I had mild headaches, but each day without caffeine made the next easier. I was building my will power. After a week, decaf coffee tasted almost as good as caffeinated coffee, and I felt confident enough to use caffeine when I really needed it. For instance, last Sunday I drove to Boone to celebrate my birthday with Edyth and her family. When I arrived, I drank a cafe au lait to wake me up enough to enjoy the family. Then, the next morning, when I started back from Boone at 4:00 a.m., I stopped and drank a small cup of black coffee to ensure I did not fall asleep at the wheel of my car. The next day, I was right back on the decaf. It is not bad. It is better than no coffee at all, and when I really, really, really, need a cup of coffee, it has its old kick. When you are living on coffee, that kick is greatly reduced. The more you exercise the will power the more will power you will have. People argue whether habit change takes three weeks, or 90 days, or longer. I suspect it depends upon how deeply one is invested in the habit, whether substitutes are available, and how severe the withdrawal symptoms are.

Of course, because will power is like a muscle it often shows fatigue. We have a limited amount of will power.

Charles Duhigg calls attention to several studies that support this. I will mention one put on Case Western University. Two groups were involved. The first group of subjects were seated in a room with a plate of radishes and a plate of cookies, and told they could eat all the cookies they wanted. They remained there for unaccompanied for five minutes, and then the researcher returned and told they had one more task to perform. The second group of subjects were seated in the same room with a plate of radishes, and a plate of cookies, and told they could eat all the radishes they wanted. They were asked not to touch the cookies. Some went for the cookies as soon as the researcher left the room. They were written out of the test. This group was also left alone for five minutes. Then both groups in turn were asked to work a geometric puzzle that could not be solved. The group of people that had been permitted to eat all the cookies they wanted, and had not been using their will power, were able to worked an average of 19 minutes, and they were in good humor all the while. The second group of people who had been allowed to eat only the radishes, and had been working their will power muscle, worked an average of 8 minutes, and they gripped and complained as they did so. The first group was 60% more effective than the first. This test has been repeated more than 200 times with similar results.

Let me say it again. Will power is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. However, our will power is not unlimited. This, I believe, is the reason that some people we regard as very disciplined often fall away in dramatic fashion. This is the reason that a highly skilled surgeon, at the end of a too long day, or week, makes a mistake in the operating room that cost a patient dearly. This is the reason that a highly disciplined accountant misreads a spreadsheet and cost his company millions of dollars. This is the reason so many highly disciplined, super successful people walk away from their lives at mid-life, making shipwreck of their families, their businesses, and ultimately their own lives, simply to have an affair with another.

Is there a way to avoid this fatigue of the will power? Yes, and it is built right into the ten keystone habits that Moses set down before the people of Israel. It is the hinge between the habits that taught Israel faithfulness to God, and faithfulness to one another. It is the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”

Moses goes on to say:

9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; 11 for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

Some will point out that the man’s wife is not enjoined to refrain from work, but that is because she was seated in the assembly where the Torah was read, albeit in a different location than her husband. The others named were not always present.

I believe that the Sabbath is intended for two things.

First, it provides us with a time of rest. To grow a muscle you have to exercise it and rest it. Perhaps you have heard the story of the Apostle John. One day a noted philosopher and hunter came upon the apostle as he was stroking a tame partridge. The philosopher said he would never have expected to find one so eminent in the faith as John spending his time in so idle a fashion. John responded, “What is that you have in your hand?”

“A bow,” said the Philosopher.

“Do you always carry it everywhere bent, taunt, and at full stretch?”

“No, indeed,” said the philosopher. “It would soon loose its elasticity; and the arrows would fly neither straight nor fast.”

“As the bow that is always bent soon ceases to shoot strait and looses its force, so the man that is always at full stretch soon cease to be efficient.”

Take a Sabbath each week. It should last twenty-four hours. If you do not, you will soon cease to be as efficient.

Second, a Sabbath provides us with an opportunity to find strength in community. “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.” (Heb. 10:25) Faith grows in an environment of faith. The story is often told of Charles Haddon Spurgeon going to visit a man who had long been absent from church. They sat before a fire as the man explained that his soul was saved, and safe, and he had no need of church. Spurgeon said nothing. Instead he reached down and took a red-hot coal from the fire, placing it on the edge of the hearth. Soon it faded to dark gray. The man said, “I understand, I will be back in church on Sunday.”

I shall never forget John Rainey telling a story to our preschoolers. He passed out single straws that he had taken from a broom and asked them to break the straws. They all did, easily. Then John took out a fist full of straws that he had tied with a string. “Break these,” he said. They all tried, but not one of them could break the straws. “This,” said John, “is the reason that we need Christian fellowship, the church. Alone, we are weak, easy to break. Together we are strong.”

When you are forming a new habit, and trying to develop you rwill power, the best thing you can do is broadcast it. “I am giving up caffeine.” “I am going on a diet.” “I am not going to the mall for a month.” Or, better yet, join a support group like AA or Weight Watchers, or get a partner. I told you I had a forty-year running habit. I had a partner or partners about ten years out of the forty, but I always had a partner when I needed them most, when change was afoot, and left alone, my will power was weak. My partners helped me to develop my will power muscle, and now, though I can no longer run, I still exercise at least 5 days of every week. My will power muscle still works.

Let me close with a question: What are the keystone habits in your own life?

Finis

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.