When we lived near Chicago, my husband, John, rode his bike for long treks in all kinds of weather. He liked to take the roads that led out of our suburb and into a relatively undeveloped country because they were less traveled.
The upside of those roads was they had less traffic. The downside was that they had a narrow shoulder. He could count on only about twelve inches of blacktop between the outside paint line and the edge of the road where the asphalt dropped off to a ditch.
Now, most of the time that narrow shoulder wasn’t an issue. But occasionally, John would hear a rumble and a clatter and know that a big dump truck was fast approaching from behind. Those big trucks didn’t have much room on the road, so they often passed close to a cyclist who was pedaling along on the edge. And those big side mirrors stuck out so far, that if you weren’t careful they could knock your helmet as they passed!
John knew he would have a challenge every time he heard one of those big trucks coming up behind him. He had to make sure he kept his bike out of the way of the truck on his left and out of the ditch on his right. And he quickly learned the secret to success in that situation.
If he looked over his shoulder to keep an eye on the truck’s location, he would inevitably veer into its lane. And if he kept his eyes on the ditch that he was trying to stay out of, he usually ended up smack-dab in the middle of it.
The secret to success was to keep his eyes fastened on his front tire and focus on keeping it on that twelve-inch strip of pavement. Keep it between the lines. Don’t look anywhere else.
John’s experience with those big trucks demonstrates an important principle: you move toward what you focus on. That principle holds true in many areas of life, but especially in habit-training.
I am often asked how to break a bad habit. The answer is don’t focus on breaking it. When a bad habit has taken hold in a person’s life, your focus should not be on the bad habit you want to break. Don’t stare at the ditch you’re trying to avoid. Your focus should be on the new good habit you want to instill in its place. Don’t break a bad habit; replace it with a good one. Keep your eyes on where you want to be. You move toward what you focus on.
This is true whether you are cultivating habits in your child’s life or your own. If Isabella has acquired a bad habit of rushing through her kitchen duty after lunch, leaving the counters half wiped and the floor unswept, what do you do? Well, rather than focus on the bad habit and send her into the kitchen with a warning, “I don’t want to find a half-done job when I come in there,” you focus on the good habit you want to instill.
You might sit down with her and together come up with a list of steps that will make the kitchen shine. Use descriptive language if that helps her get a good mental picture. Make the list beautiful if she is drawn toward visual beauty. Post the list in the kitchen where Isabella can see it.
Then go with her into the kitchen and do the work together. Encourage her every time you see her putting forth the effort to do one of the steps thoroughly. Help her keep her focus on the right path with your cheerful presence, your own modeling of the work well done, and your positive words. Make it as pleasurable of an experience as you can.
The thing with habits is that the more times you repeat a certain action or think a certain thought, the more deeply it becomes ingrained in your brain. So, repetition is a key to habit-training. Do all in your power to make sure Isabella repeats the actions and the thoughts of the desired good habit. The more she stays focused on that good path, the more the old undesirable path will fade.
Once the new path is frequently traveled, you will be able to phase out your presence little by little and enjoy the benefits of Isabella’s good habit of work in the kitchen without your supervision. But it all starts with changing your focus. Don’t fixate on the bad habit. Determine what is the good habit and focus on cultivating that.
The same is true for your own bad habits. If you have a bad habit of, say, raising your voice to your children, don’t spend your day telling yourself not to raise your voice. The more you focus on that bad habit, the more you will tend to veer in that direction. It’s like saying, “Stop thinking about a purple cow.”
Instead, think of the opposite: the good habit. What good habit do you want to put in the bad habit’s place? That’s what you should focus on. Instead of a loud, harsh voice, you want to use a kind and pleasant, yet firm, voice. Think about what you do want: kind, pleasant, firm. Keep your focus there. Keep those words on your mind. Ponder what they mean. Pray about those words; ask God to help you say kind words, to use a pleasant but firm tone. Think on what that kind of voice might sound like. Practice that sound. The more you center your mind on what you do want to sound like, the easier it will be to stay on that track. You move toward what you focus on.
What seems to me the fundamental law of education is no more than this:
‘Habit is driven out by habit.’. . . Break the old custom
which is assuredly broken when a certain length of time goes by without its repetition.
But one habit drives out another. Lay new lines in the old place.
(Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children, pp. 85–87).
Don’t focus on breaking the bad habit. Keep your eyes on the good habit you want to put in its place.
You move toward what you focus on.