Three Steps to Consistent Change
I’m part of a group that reads one paragraph of a Torah lesson each day. We’re supposed to keep going until we can make a siyum. Meanwhile, this lesson-a-day book has sat in my bedside dresser for the past six months. Granted, I’ve just had a baby, but it’s one small thing, and I can’t even do that?
How many times do we make resolutions on Rosh Hashanah, only to arrive at the next Rosh Hashanah asking ourselves, When am I ever going to change?
What’s the secret to true transformation? Below are three tools that work to create lasting change.
James Clear, in his New York Times best selling book, Atomic Habits, shares a technique called “habit stacking.” He explains that newborns have 60% more neurons than adult brains. Babies are like blank canvases. They have plenty of neurons, but none have developed strong connections. They have tremendous potential, with every skill available for them to become proficient at, but no synapses have been strengthened.
The adult brain has fewer neurons because we lose what we don’t use. Adults prune away neurons and synapses and strengthen those which are practiced and consistently wired together. For example, a professional basketball player is highly skilled in areas related to basketball, such as dribbling, shooting, and passing. Many of these drills could be performed with their eyes shut. Other synapses, such as the ones required for playing piano, may have shrunk or disappeared. As we age and develop some habits over others, certain areas of our brain become less sharp. The synapses between neurons in relation to these habits are so strong that we barely have to think when performing them. We can use this to our advantage by adding what we would like to achieve but don’t yet do to what we already do easily.
These concepts can be utilized when trying to develop and stick to new, consistent resolutions. Habit stacking requires identifying some small activity we already do habitually, such as brushing our teeth, buckling in, or washing our hands after the restroom. Our brains are quite efficient at remembering to perform these activities. Rather than connecting a habit to a particular time or place, we instead connect it to a pre-existing habit. These habits then “stack” upon each other and cue one another until they form one cohesive habit. This type of growth is a form of implementation intention.
We may wonder, Should I meditate today? But we never wonder if we should wash our hands after using the restroom. We can use these moments to our advantage and start building new habits that can change our entire lives.
Here are some examples of habit stacking:
- Right after I use the restroom in the morning, I will wash my hands ritually.
- Right after preparing my cup of coffee in the morning, I will say one tehillim.
- Right after I buckle my seatbelt, I’m going to tell my children why I think they are wonderful.
The Torah has been promoting this concept for centuries. Judaism is constantly taking daily habits and rituals and turning them into a progression. Think about it: there is an order and progression to the Seder night, and similarly, we say kiddush Friday night, then we ritually wash our hands, and after which, we make a blessing on challah.
IT MUST SERVE YOU
I looked inward at the two resolutions I have stuck to in the past, and tried to understand why those took hold throughout the years. I have been writing in my gratitude journal for 17 years, and have been thanking my husband for something specific each day for the past five years.
What’s the common link?
Drumroll, please… It’s not just gratitude. The common thread is that they both serve me. When I express gratitude, I feel happier. When I thank my husband, our relationship flourishes.
I benefit. It’s as simple as that.
My friend once complained about the fact that her chargers disappear into a black hole in her home. One evening, her hands were “elbow deep” in cooking, and her phone was dying. She asked her teenage son to locate her charger. He allegedly attempted to find it, but within seconds came up empty-handed.
“Sorry Mom, I don’t see it.”
She responded, “My problem is going to be your problem in about an hour when your phone dies, too. We only have one charger between us, so you need to find it! ”
Later, she told me, “You better believe he found that cord fast!”
This story may sound selfish, but it’s true to human nature. The only way we will commit consistently is if we see the benefit for us clearly.
If we are honest with ourselves, every relationship we are in serves us in some way; otherwise, it would dissipate. The relationship may solve loneliness, or perhaps we are financially tied to or emotionally reliant upon the person. And so too it is with Hashem. Judaism is not just a religion; it’s a relationship. Our relationship with Hashem has to serve us.
When we choose a goal to grow with, we need to make sure we can see the benefit. Eventually, we will come to realize that every mitzvah is for our benefit. But until then, picking something that clearly benefits us will enable us to stick to our goals most effectively.
A boy walked into his first grade classroom and shouted, “My mom is in the hospital! She’s having a baby!” He already had many sisters, so he pulled his best friend aside and said, “We aren’t going to recess today. We have to pray for this baby to be a boy. I need a brother!”
While all the other boys ran outside, these two stayed in and davened intensely. An hour later, the teacher received a phone call from the boy’s father.
“We had a baby!”
In unison, the class and teacher asked, “So…what is it?”
“It’s a baby…girl!”
The whole class groaned.
The boy’s friend could not believe he missed his recess, and felt his prayers were wasted.
Years later, the same friend started dating. He met a young woman named Naomi, and ended up marrying her. Naomi, it turned out, was none other than that little girl born to his friend’s mother many years before. He davened so strongly for a baby boy, but he actually married that baby girl!
We often pray for the things in life we want, or the things we think we want. Hashem knows exactly what to do with our tefillot. We don’t know Hashem’s ways. We pray, and it may feel like it falls on deaf ears, but no prayer is ever wasted. Sometimes, Hashem answers us in the least expected way.
My parents were not always as observant as they are today. They didn’t always keep Shabbat, because my father had to work on Saturdays.
My mother used to pray with all her heart that one day our family should have Shabbat in our lives. It didn’t happen that year, or even a couple years later, but eventually Shabbat became a reality for us. Perhaps in the merit of her heartfelt prayers, today all of her children and grandchildren have Shabbat in their lives. This was something she never dreamed could happen.
Prayer is like a magic vehicle that can take us where we want to go.
Imagine you are standing at the bottom of a staircase, and your mission in life is to climb to the 100th floor. You wonder how you will ever manage it, but you start climbing anyway. You are standing on the 12th floor, huffing and puffing. You think, I can’t take another step. You start to pray out of desperation, “Help me reach my goal to become who I am meant to be!”
Suddenly, an elevator appears. You walk in, and there is only one button, leading directly to the 100th floor.
Prayer can take us anywhere, and it is the most powerful tool we have in our arsenal.
Through habit stacking, finding goals that serve us, and utilizing prayer, we can polish ourselves into the magnificent individuals we already are deep down.