How to build enduring habits

Think about the last time you felt seriously unproductive.

Not the casual “I feel like going to the beach and taking a day off”, but the “I don’t want to get out of bed and reply to dreaded e-mails” kind of unproductive.

Now, let me ask: Did you brush your teeth?

If you said “yes”, then you’ve experienced the remarkable resilience of ingrained habits. However stressful or depressed we may feel, they stubbornly keep us going. Like building relational redundancy, enduring habits are an effective way to stay productive in times of distress.

So how do you build a habit that lasts?

In this post, I want to use the prayer app Ceaseless as a case study for habit formation. For deeper insight, check out books like The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business (affiliate link) and Transform Your Habits: The Science of How to Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.

Case Study: Ceaseless Prayer

In one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:16 NIV). While there are several ways to interpret this verse in context, all of those ways include the notion of habitual prayer.

And therein lies a unique problem.

Despite the best of intentions, I know many Christians who struggle with prayer. Jesus characterized the problem as intrinsic to human nature with the famous words: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38b NIV)

Can we apply science and technology to these spiritual problems?

I believe the answer is yes. Humans are both physical and spiritual beings. This overlap is precisely where technology can make a difference.

One common insight from the science of habit formation is the habit loop, a virtuous cycle characterized by Reminder, Routine and Reward.

Ceaseless helps people “pray continually” by nudging each part of this cycle forward.

Step 1: Reminder – Daily Notifications

Ceaseless prayer reminderThe first step to build a new habit is to connect it to an existing one.

Ceaseless does so by showing a daily reminder in your smartphone’s notifications. Since you’re already in the habit of checking and acting on your notifications, you’ll also remember to pray for others. Tapping on the notification opens the app.

Step 2: Routine – Praying for Others

Ceaseless pray for a friendKeep the habit simple.

When you open the app you see a person’s face, name and story (notes you’ve written to help you remember how to pray for them). Note: the very first screen is an inspiring picture and Scripture to help you focus.

You see everything you need and nothing distracting. The app has chosen three people from your contacts and all you do is take a moment to pray for each of them.

Step 3: Reward – See your Progress

Ceaseless prayer progress

Feel rewarded for completing the habit.

After you swipe through the people to pray for, you get a short-term reward: a progress bar shows how many people you’ve prayed for so far. You also see the number of days you’ve prayed for others.

The long-term reward is of course the joy of loving others and watching God graciously respond to your prayers for their lives.

The Result: A Habit is Born

After using Ceaseless for over a year, my prayer life has never been more consistent. I’ve been through some very difficult ongoing trials and to my surprise God has used the app to keep me from drowning in the seas of self-pity and despair. The daily nudge God-ward and out-ward to others has helped me press on in my calling.

For Christians: God has not left us powerless. While our flesh may be weak, we have been given the Spirit. Effective habit formation does not undermine grace, but is a good use of the grace God has already given us in order to obey Him.

Conclusion

Here are some ideas you can apply to your habit-formation endeavors:

  1. What existing habits can you use to start new ones?
  2. How can you simplify the habitual action so that it becomes sustainable?
  3. What short-term reward can keep you motivated until you start enjoying the long-term benefits?

There remains of course one important set of questions lurking in the background:

  • What habits are worth adopting?
  • What am I being productive for?
  • What’s the point?

These are the questions I plan on exploring in my next post.

Walking a tightrope.

Image by Carlo Ciccarelli, CC BY-SA 2.0
Image by Carlo Ciccarelli, CC BY-SA 2.0

Although it can feel like walking on a tight rope, the tension between relying on human ability versus trusting in God’s grace is not resolved by “staying balanced”. Are we praying so much we’ve turned passive? Are we relying on our own strength and wisdom instead of God’s? Trying to stay centered for fear of falling off the rope is tiring.

While walking around my neighborhood the other day it started to rain. Like a child I asked God to let the rain stop until I got home. I asked a few times and it didn’t stop, so I thanked him for his answer (“nope”) and that it wasn’t raining harder and that my home was very close by. Then it started raining harder. Big, cold, drops washing over my hair and drenching my jacket. That’s when I decided to run the rest of the way.

God gave us the capacity to pray that he would change the weather as well as the legs to get us home quicker. They aren’t two ends of a spectrum, but are both gifts from him. Where then does the “merit and grace tension” come from? It may actually be the tension of “faith versus not faith”.

Faith vs Not Faith

Praying and running are both actions, which can be motivated by faith or the lack of it. Here are two quotes to kick off the conversation:

“For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23b)

“To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15a)

(Note: I’m using these quotes to explain the concept more than to exposit the texts. The concept should still be tested through deeper exegesis.)

Whether a person prays or runs, if they do not have faith, it is sin.

Why? Because the actions glorify something other than God. Faithless prayer is merely therapy for an anxious soul. Faithless running highlights the legs of a man fit enough to save himself from being drenched. God will still be glorified in what he has made and done, but the person doing the action without faith does not glorify him.

On the other hand, a person who waits for God, hopes in God, has faith in God alone, whose heart purely desires God, can do anything like pray and/or run and it will not be sin. Everything is pure to such a person.

Why? Everything they do glorifies God. When they pray, they exalt his faithfulness, taking comfort from his character and promises, and thus highlight how awesome he really is. When they run, they exalt his grace for giving them strong legs to get safely home and for keeping them from slipping along the way.

The Relaxing Transformation

So we see that the “merit and grace tension” of leaning too much on one’s ability versus passively letting God decide is not resolved through a balancing act. The tension is resolved through a transformation of the heart. 

This is why walking by faith is in a sense very relaxing. You aren’t worrying about if you are doing too little or too much. You are trusting God for everything and working, praying, resting and learning, with your attention fixed on your Hope rather than your effort (spiritual or otherwise).

This transformation unleashes immense fruitfulness in a believer.

When you walk by faith instead of sight, your merits are treated as graces and used without a second thought to what you deserve (or don’t deserve) for your effort or diligence. You already know by faith that your effort and diligence will be rewarded and are themselves gifts. Even if those gifts were removed, the grace of God will be enough and will continue to abound in thousands of other ways.

You’re not anxious about if you’re doing enough to merit God’s blessing (as if you could). You’re not afraid that God’s favor will be removed because you relied on your strength too much. You’re not depressed about not being good enough to get what you want. You don’t feel guilty over receiving more than you deserve.

Instead, you are grateful for everything and use everything God has given you–the power of prayer, a compassionate heart and sharp intellect, swift feet and strong arms, kind and true words, weakness and suffering, good health and wealth–to honor God and love others.

By faith everything suddenly finds its proper place, everything is aligned and can fulfill the purpose God intended when he gave you those gifts. Instead of living on edge like a marathon tightrope walker, you become like an advanced warship, rolling steadily down a river of grace, exercising your every capability to fulfill your mission as you press on to your destination.

Conclusion

If you feel anxious about the tension of trusting in God versus relying on yourself, RELAX. Trust God to guide your prayers as well as your abilities. Wait for his grace to be revealed to you in both and be open to what he chooses to give.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Let there be ceaseless prayer

ceaseless_invite_screenshotAs I shared in my previous post, I’m building a Facebook app that sends an e-mail with 5 friends to pray for each day. I’ve always found it hard to remember to pray for others and I hope this app can remedy that. I’m calling it Ceaseless and you can add your name to the waitlist here if you’re interested (I’ll try to send you an invitation as soon as possible!)

A friend recently asked if I considered Twitter integration yet and I wanted to share my reply since it helps explain the ethos behind Ceaseless:


Hi [Friend],

I’ve thought about [Twitter integration], but I’d like to focus on helping people pray for others more than for current events–unless you [are finding] that people frequently tweet prayer requests. Instead of overwhelming [someone] with the latest current events/the firehose of tweets, I’d like to promote a consistent, long term, reflective atmosphere of prayer that over a year or a lifetime helps [them] pray for the things that matter to God (and  [to them]). I would like to enable people to make prayer requests, but I haven’t really thought through how that would work well (also concerned about privacy and security issues that I feel like I can’t do a good job addressing yet in my current situation).

In terms of sources of prayer, as much as possible, I’d like to incorporate things that explicitly derive from the Scriptures like:

  • Praying for political, business, intellectual and other leaders and all those who are in authority, globally, nationally, and locally. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
  • For more laborers to be sent to the various harvests in the world (Matthew 9:38)
  • For the saints, persecuted believers, other churches, ministries, missionaries, friends, etc. (Ephesians 6:18-19)
  • For anxieties they are experiencing (Philippians 4:6-7)

Since everyone is incredibly busy and the list of things to pray for can feel overwhelming to the point of guilt-ridden indifference, I’m trying, God-willing, to create the opposite experience. Regular prayer. Reflective [instead of reactive]. Scriptures to help you learn to pray. Just enough so you aren’t overwhelmed (in the negative sense of the word). All this coupled with a process that helps you pray for the full range of God’s purposes in the world–filling in the details of “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done”, if you will.

Thanks for the suggestion and for thinking of me too!


If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a reply in the comments. Or if you’re ready to sign up, you can do so here.

Thanks!

Can computers pray?

If you don’t believe that prayer works, then you’ll probably find this article absurd. If you pray before meals and that’s enough, you’ll probably feel like this article is unnecessary. If you believe prayer is so powerful that it changes history then you’ve probably felt overwhelmed by the burden of responsibility for it.

A praying computerPraying can be hard. It’s very easy to find things to do instead of praying because actions seem to more directly result in the outcomes we desire. Prayer occasionally garners an immediate result or response from God, but usually has long-term effects that aren’t discernable until a much later time.

Jesus famously told his disciples, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” and coupled with endless prayer lists, (as creatively portrayed in the movie Bruce Almighty (Note: Links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links)) it soon becomes clear why prayer frequently reduces to variants of “Lord, please help…Amen”.

If every prayer resulted in instant feedback, we would probably be more motivated to persist in it (because of the power of feedback loops). If prayer were reduced to simply giving thanks before a meal, it might be more manageable (following the “making change seem easy” technique from Switch). But instead of these two approaches, Scripture says to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, present [one’s] requests to God” and to “pray without ceasing“.

How do you pray without ceasing? Are we expected to pray for every passing ambulance, every stranger we meet on the bus and about every decision we make in a day and even while we’re snoozing? I think the answer is clearly “no”, but here are some ways this question has been answered throughout the ages:

  • Some in the Orthodox faith tradition interpret it to mean rigorously keeping regular times of prayer, while others practice it by continually meditating on a verse of prayer throughout the day so that even while sleeping one can pray because it is so ingrained in their heart.
  • Others in the Reformed tradition like Charles Spurgeon, John Piper and RC Sproul interpret it to mean never giving up on prayer, keeping regular times of prayer (and frequently praying through Scripture), praying throughout the day in a spirit of dependence on God, and making all of life an extension and fulfillment of one’s prayers.
  • Within the Catholic traditions of the early church fathers, we find some who went as far as forgoing manual labor in order to do nothing but pray, while others prayed continually by teaming up and taking shifts so that every hour of the day was covered.
There is much overlap between these traditions, but isn’t it interesting that no one (to my knowledge) has suggested the automation of prayer? Adherents of Buddhism have prayer wheels, which they believe mechanically automate the oral recitation of their mantras, but repeated attempts to make a prayer management application for Christians have proven rather unsuccessful. Why? Can Christian prayer be automated?

Here are 3 possible levels of prayer automation:

  • Level 1 automates reminders. Your phone buzzes to ask you what you are experiencing so you can pray about it. You can’t tell if the buzz is from your mom or significant other or the system, so you’re more likely to read and respond to it. One system called Gotandem is trying to do something like this.
  • Level 2 automates content. Your phone detects your mood and activities and the needs of others based on Facebook feeds and surfaces things to you in bite-sized chunks so that you can remember to pray and know what to pray about. This could roll up into a global prayer analytics platform as explored by Nate Matias. Churches that practice liturgical prayers have attempted to automate content through apps like iBreviary.
  • Level 3 automates prayer. It’s an app that takes all of this data and prays continually for you so you can focus on your work.

Okay scratch that last idea :-). We’ve crossed the fine line between helpful and hindering technology. Maybe prayer automation has met limited success because of one faulty assumption; namely that computers can automate the work of the Holy Spirit.

Aha, “Merit and Grace” all over again–computer effort and the work of God!

While praying with a friend about this, I said, “Lord, your Holy Spirit is better than any technology we could develop, please move us to pray and help us to pray”. It stunned me to recall that reminders to pray, desires to pray, and the content of prayer are totally of God–no wonder it is overwhelming in scope and breathtaking in power! In fact, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ themselves constantly pray for us. They obviously do not use technology to help them and their divine power is poured out to help us in prayer.

But where does this leave level 1 and 2 apps? Couldn’t God use them? We depend on grace from the Holy Spirit which we do not control and we wonder what to do with the things under our control like apps and smartphones. With such devices there is a risk of losing the heart of prayer, but there is also room to use the merit God has given us to invent tools that help us obey him (if you’re using stickies on a wall or a prayer journal, that’s man-made technology too!).

Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves after they sinned and God graciously clothed them with superior animal skins instead while promising a future supreme clothing in Christ. As we pray and invent tools to help, God graciously clothes our prayers in his own while promising a resounding Amen to all we ask in his name. And that’s the point of a prayer app any way, isn’t it? Not so much ensuring the act of praying happens as much as receiving the affirming love of our Father’s, “Yes!”

Prayer isn’t a burden to be automated, it’s a desire to be satisfied, a discipline to be honed, a relationship to be enjoyed.

I close with these words from Spurgeon:

When prayer is a mechanical act, and there is no soul in it, it is a slavery and a weariness; but when it is really living prayer, and when the man prays because he is a Christian and cannot help praying, when he prays along the street, prays in his business, prays in the house, prays in the field, when his whole soul is full of prayer, then he cannot have too much of it.

P.S. If any of you try out any of the apps I linked to in this post, please leave a comment about how you like it.

P.P.S. Sorry if you feel like the title was a “bait and switch”, but I will leave the philosophical angles on the question “Can computers pray?” to sci-fi theologians (or perhaps it can be relegated to a future post).