How to Break the Cycle of Bad Habits

Millions of people across the globe count down to the new year and upon each new year’s arrival we succumb to the champaign, sleep deprivation, the celebratory atmosphere, and the very tangible hope that lies ahead. 

It’s a new year. Time for new beginnings, second chances, and the pursuit of what we hope will make us happy. I often joke (although not all that funny) that the only New Year’s resolution I ever kept was that I resolved to never make another New Year’s resolution. 

Failure After Failure

I was tired of failure. I was tired of watching every business imaginable, from fast food, to fast cars take advantage of a person’s commitment to change—albeit it brief. Because by the end of January, the vast majority of us will have not only given up on the resolution, but will have forgotten we ever made one in the first place. 

I make a joke of it, but inwardly I am feeling the effects of nostalgia from the past and hope for the future. I still want make the new year, the best yet. I still want to accomplish some incredible goals, make a difference in my relationships, my job, and my own health. Why? Well, given the powerful combination of the atmosphere and your brain chemistry, midnight on December 31 is the perfect time. There is incredible motivation, support, and hope for what could be. In many cases, there is no better opportunity for change. But yet, year after year we drop the ball. We slip back into old habits and find ourselves caught in the same loop over and over. 

We don’t consider the hard work that begins on January 1. And it begins with starting new habits. This is precisely why, as followers of Christ, we have a hard time establishing good habits that foster spiritual growth. It is why we continually find ourselves in a spiritual rut, failing to pray everyday, failing to share our faith every chance we get, and failing to read the Bible with some degree of regularity. 

The Power of Habit

I spent the end of the year flying through The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. If you haven’t read it, get it here. You won’t regret it. In it he identifies some simple steps necessary to begin a new habit. It begins with breaking the old. 

It takes the brain a few weeks (about 21 days) to establish a new habit. However, the problem most of us run into is not an establishing a new habit, it is correcting or ridding ourselves of an old habit, a routine that is so engrained it becomes part of our identity, and a reward that fills a void. There are only so many hours in a day, so if you plan to start a new habit, it really begins with replacing an old one—likely something you ought to stop doing anyway. 

Perhaps you resolved this year to read the Bible each morning. Your normal routine is to wake up, grab a cup of coffee, and watch the morning news. Before you know it, it is time to get ready and head to work. You’ve been in this routine for so long it has become automatic—completely thoughtless. 

So as you aim to change this routine to waking up, grabbing coffee, and reading the Bible instead, it works—for about a week. And then, without any warning you find yourself right back into the old habit of watching the morning news. Why?

Cue, Routine, Reward

Habits are formed and solidified around a cycle consisting of a cue, a routine, and a reward. As the routine is formed it enters the part of brain that runs much of your life on autopilot. Making change incredibly difficult. 

Once you see what the routine is and how you want to change it, you need to experiment with different rewards. Perhaps you still watch the morning news, but until after you have read your Bible or prayed, etc. In order to get the reward just right, you’ll have to play around with different ones. The trick here is to discover what you are really after. What is driving the habit?

Then you can isolate the cue. What is driving your desire to watch TV, grab a snack in the middle of the day, or stop on the way home for a drink. 

Once you have done all of that you can now create a plan that has a much higher chance to working. Start small. Like reading the Bible in the morning or before bed. Then work up to other areas of your spiritual life like sharing your faith or deeper study of the Word. 


It is really easy to dream on New Year’s Eve. So many of us walk with a little more spring in our step through the early parts of January. But without a plan and some intentionality, our brains, without warning, will kick back over to autopilot and the hope that brought us to tears as the ball dropped at Midnight will fade into the distant memory of what if. 

I would highly encourage you to pick up Charles Duhigg’s book. It will help you as a person, a leader, and a parent. 

Published by stevenmkozak

Steve has been an experienced and dedicated youth ministry and non-profit leader for more than 15 years. Steve has taught in the classroom, local church, and parachurch organizations. Steve holds a masters degree in theology from Moody Theological Seminary and a masters in Christian apologetics from Biola University. He speaks and writes on youth ministry, youth culture and apologetics. He resides in northern Indiana with his wife and four children.

2 thoughts on “How to Break the Cycle of Bad Habits

  1. There are some practical ideas in this post. Thanks for writing it. “Start small.” I find this alone, being realistic enough to start small, can help us form new and better habits.
    I also had a blog post that addressed one reason we may fail year after year. We are trying to follow so-called spiritual “rules” that don’t work for us. Be free! Do what works for you.

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