One Sunday morning during the summer of 1997, I was in the bathroom getting ready for church. The door was open and I was standing at the sink, shaving. My oldest daughter, Anna, appeared in the doorway and the following conversation took place between us:
Anna: Dad, when are you going to be ready to leave for church?
Harry: I’ll be ready pretty soon.
Anna: Dad, we’re going to be late for Mass.
Harry: I’m almost done Anna. I’ll be ready in a few minutes.
Anna: We’re late for Mass every week. Why can’t you ever be on time?
Dad: Anna, leave me alone. I told you, I’ll be ready pretty soon.
Anna: Dad, you’re 40 years old. Don’t you think it’s about time you change your bad habit of always being late for Mass?
I stopped shaving and looked at her and said, “Anna, I already have a wife. I don’t need my 14-year-old daughter telling me how I should live my life. Now get out of here and leave me alone.”
I finished shaving and walked into my bedroom. Georgette was in the bedroom and had heard the conversation. When I looked at her, she had a big smile on her face. I knew what she was thinking. Here’s the conversation that occurred between us:
Harry: You did a good job training your daughter.
Georgette: I didn’t say anything.
Harry: You didn’t have to say anything. Your daughter said everything you would’ve wanted to say to me.
Georgette: What probably bothers you the most is that our daughter is more like you than me. She’s speaks her mind just like you do and isn’t afraid of telling the truth even though she knows you may be offended by it.
That was the end of the conversation. In less than five minutes, both my wife and my daughter managed to put me in my place.
Anna was right about what she said. How was it that a 40-year-old man couldn’t get his act together and break his habit of always running late?
Why is it so difficult for people to permanently modify their bad behavioral habits?
Earlier this year, a Catholic client of mine called and asked if I could refer her to a good divorce lawyer. I’ve known this client for more than 10 years. She has been reading my weekly articles ever since I started publishing them in 2006.
After we talked for a while, I sensed that she really didn’t want to get a divorce. She was extremely frustrated with what was going on in her marriage and didn’t know what to do or who she could turn to for advice. I asked her if she was praying a Rosary every day and she gave me the same answer I hear from 95% of other Catholics who are struggling with serious personal problems: “I know I should be praying a Rosary every day, but I just can’t seem to get around to it.”
We all know things we should be doing, but for some reason we never get around to doing them. We know we should be exercising every day, but we always have a good excuse for not getting around to it. We know we should be showing up early for appointments, but there’s always a good “reason” that we’re late. We know we should eat fresh vegetables every day, spend less time on the Internet, avoid gossiping about others, and practice more patience and kindness toward our family members and loved ones, but we always seem to have a convenient excuse for our failure to follow through on any of these important things.
We were created in the image and likeness of God; therefore, each of us is a creator. In addition to having the ability to create things that are outside of ourselves, we also have the ability to create new behavioral habits.
The process for creating a new behavioral habit consists of effectively utilizing a combination of desire, imagination, and expectation.
The word “expectation” is described as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.”
Last month I wrote about how I knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I was 13 years old. From the time that I was 13 until the time I entered law school, I frequently saw myself in my imagination as a successful trial lawyer. As a result of my desire to be a lawyer and the frequent use of my imagination to nurture, validate, and intensify my desire, I developed the expectation that I was going to become a lawyer. By the time I graduated from college, it was a foregone conclusion. My expectation was that I was going to graduate from law school and become a lawyer.
We were all born to automatically use this process to get what we want. Children and teenagers routinely get what they want by living out their desires in their imagination until they’ve created the expectation that what they want is going to come to pass. Most people stop using their imaginations as they grow older. As adults, we need to relearn the process of stimulating desire and turning it into reality.
So what did I do that helped me change my lifetime habit of showing up late for commitments? I created the desire to show up early by outlining all the reasons I should develop the new habit. Several times each day, I saw myself in my imagination showing up early for appointments. In my imagination, I heard other people commenting on how I was early. I saw myself sitting calmly, waiting for others to arrive. I imagined driving to my destination without the stress of running late and having to rush to get there. I imagined imitating Christ and his parents who always showed up early for their commitments.
Before long, in my mind, I created the expectation that I was always going to be early. After that, whenever I showed up late, even though it was only by one minute, I was extremely disappointed in myself for not living up to my newly developed expectation. I was no longer interested in using “reasons” or excuses to explain away my behavior. I was determined to live up to my own expectations.
The same process could be used by my client to develop the habit of praying a daily Rosary. She admitted to me that she knew that she and her marriage would benefit from additional daily prayers. She had a desire to pray a daily Rosary, but didn’t have a process she could follow to develop the new habit.
What bad habit should you be working on eliminating? What good habit should you be working on developing?