What’s Inside: In this third part of the Flourish series, we examine the value and power of good habits in daily life. Life can be overwhelming and chaotic at times, but with lifegiving habits and routines and the systems that make them work in place, we can maintain peace, well-being, and vibrant personal growth through any season of life.
“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.”Isaiah 61:3
What do you feel when you hear words like habits, routines, systems, and goals? For some, reading those words fills you with excitement as you dash off to grab your color-coded planner, alphabetized to-do lists, and a rainbowed collection of pens. For others, those words make you cringe and dash for cover.
Most of us land somewhere between those two extremes – we love the idea of living a well-ordered life filled with great daily habits and routines, yet we are painfully aware of how much we lack in this area of life.
However you describe yourself, I want you to pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and hear something crucial: as we talk about the importance of lifegiving habits for growing in our personal lives, there’s something we need to understand clearly: as women of God and followers of Christ, our overarching goal in life – the very reason for our existence – is to have flourishing, fruitful lives that glorify Christ (see John 15:8; Colossians 1:16). If you or I were the most organized person on the planet, won the “Most Efficient Woman of the Year” award, or even wrote a wildly popular book on successful habit formation, yet failed to live our lives to the glory of God, then we have failed in the light of eternity.
God has uniquely created you with the personality, giftings, and resources He desires you to have. For a few people, living a well-structured, organized, if somewhat rigid, life comes easily. The world needs people like this, but if this describes you, the danger comes when you are so inflexible that you get all bent out of shape when things don’t go the way you planned. Others are more of the “go with the flow” personality – which is fine until the flow turns into a turbulent river that threatens to overwhelm us completely, and we have no plan of how to stay afloat or get safely to shore.
Because our God is a God of order and beauty, we all have the opportunity to grow in living our lives in a way that is marked by calm rather than chaos, but also flexible and able to gracefully bend – not break – with the winds of unexpected events that blow in all of our lives. How can we grow in this area, no matter our natural tendencies? By understanding and utilizing the power of lifegiving habits.
What are Lifegiving Habits?
Habits are all the small things we do daily that make our lives what they are. Habits can be good or bad. A lifegiving habit is a positive daily habit that provides stability and brings order out of chaos yet does not lock us into such a rigid routine that we have no adaptability and risk becoming angry or defeated when things don’t go according to our carefully laid plans.
Most of us find bad habits easy to develop and highly difficult to break. On the other hand, good habits often seem like an elusive carrot dangling just out of reach. If we finally manage to reach the carrot, we grab hold just long enough to give it a bite but finding it a lot of work to hang on to, we let it go, and it swings away beyond our reach. Frustrated, we give up on that good habit and look around for a new, easier carrot to reach for. We do this tiresome ritual repeatedly, finding the whole experience of attempting to develop good habits exhausting and defeating.
I’ve been there. I’m often still there. I feel the frustration, the overwhelm, and the embarrassment that something is wrong with me – how is it that everyone else seems to have figured out how to grab hold of those dangling carrots – and not just one, but a whole neatly stacked pile of those pretty orange things?
The Struggle is Real, But You’re Not Alone
As I gathered research for writing this post, I asked several friends, family members, and my newsletter readers about one habit they regularly did that helped them keep their sanity even when life got crazy. While I did get some great feedback full of practical ideas that we’ll explore later in this post, the two most common responses I got were:
- “I don’t have any great habits…but I wish I did.”
I wasn’t surprised by the results: there’s a reason that the book Atomic Habits has sold over 9 million copies: if most of us already excelled in positive habit formation and maintenance, we wouldn’t feel the need to buy the book. If you’ve ever struggled to develop good daily habits, you are in good company!
Now, many of us might be doing better than we realize. Sometimes, we believe we are deficient in good habits in daily life because of the very nature of what a habit is: they become such a part of our daily rhythms that we don’t even think about them anymore.
But when there are areas of life that are genuinely chaotic and desperate to be rescued by some lifegiving habits, why can it be so hard to establish the practices we desperately need and honestly want?
Sometimes it’s because we are at a loss of where to begin. Or maybe we have scorned developing regular practices, thinking they will make us stodgy and boring “creatures of habit.”
Other times, we’ve tried and failed in the past and grown discouraged. Or maybe we used to be in a good place and had times when life felt under control and relatively calm, until Wham! Unexpected change, illness, or even a happy event such as a new child’s arrival occurs, and suddenly everything that was working well isn’t anymore and we struggle to find a new rhythm.
And sometimes, we’ve become so accustomed to the less than stellar way we’ve been haphazardly functioning that we don’t even realize how much peace and calm we are missing out on. We haven’t given much thought to the possibility of a better way to do life because we are too busy trying to dig ourselves out from under piles of unfolded laundry, dirty dishes, and the mound of mismatched shoes at the back door. We are trying to survive – flourishing seems unattainable.
Whatever the reason for your struggle, there is hope! By shifting the way we think of habits, no longer seeing them as end goals in and of themselves or worse, rigid protocols that bind us to a joyless, inflexible pattern of living but instead seeing them as tiny seeds full of potential that we can faithfully and thoughtfully plant, we take the first step towards rooting out chaos and growing calm in its place.
What if we stopped chasing the dangling carrots and started planting gardens? What if we realized that habits, in the beginning, are not fully formed and ready to enjoy? Instead, they are tiny seeds that need planting, watering, nourishing, and, in time, harvesting.
Like the seeds we plant in our gardens or that a farmer sows in his field, tiny habit seeds are full of powerful potential for the future when planted consistently in life’s garden. And once we realize that habits are seeds, then we can make a plan for how to grow them well.
How to Plan a Garden: Habits, Routines, and Systems
One seed sown hither and thither with little care or thought will not produce a beautiful, flourishing garden. However, planting one tiny seed after another in a well-ordered, intentional way has the possibility of leading to a fruitful harvest that brings joy to both ourselves and those around us.
While the weed seeds of poor habits seem almost to plant themselves, the opposite is true of the good seeds. We need a plan for growing and nourishing them, and routines and systems that move us towards our end goal are the tools we need to have in our toolbox!
Defining Habits, Routines, and Systems
Here’s my working definition of the difference between habits, routines, and systems:
A habit is something I do regularly, the routine is when I do it, and the system is how I get it done. Let’s look at a simple, slightly silly, but relatable example.
Habit (what I do): Brush my teeth before bed and help my little ones get their teeth brushed.
Routine (when I do it): Ibrush my teeth while my little ones take their evening baths.
System (how I do it): I keep our toothbrushes together in the same bathroom where I bathe the children (the older kids are on their own and in a different bathroom). While they splash, I take all the toothbrushes out of the cupboard and load them with toothpaste. I set the kids’ toothbrushes aside, then brush my teeth. Once each child is bathed and dressed for bed, they get their teeth brushed, and then we are all set for storytime.
For the longest time, I bathed the little ones in one bathroom and brushed their teeth in the other bathroom. At the end of a long day, this just seemed like another chore. The one tiny change of moving the toothbrushes to the same bathroom and loading them all at the same time has significantly changed the smoothness of our evening routine.
Here’s another example from my everyday life:
Habit (what): Gathering and eating supper together as a family each evening.
Routine (when): Supper is served at the kitchen table between 5:30 and 6.
System (how): At the beginning of each week, I meal plan for supper meals and add needed groceries to my pick-up order. Each night before bed, I glance at the menu plan for the next day, take out anything that needs to thaw in the fridge and make a basic plan for whatever prep will be required the next day (is it something that needs to go in the crockpot in the morning, marinate, bake for an hour or two, etc.).
Eating dinner together has been part of our daily rhythm since Paul and I were first married. However, I only established a consistent meal planning habit within the last few years. Doing so has relieved so much of the angst that came with serving 6 people 7 suppers a week (not to mention breakfast and lunches!), and my daily meal prep has become peaceful and enjoyable. I wish I had started planting the seeds of menu planning much earlier!
When thinking through what small seed steps will most benefit you and your family, it’s essential to know what you want to harvest. That is the why behind the daily things you do, and we’ll look at that next!
The Importance of Knowing Your Why – What Do You Want to Harvest?
So many facets of our lives are beyond our control. We can’t control when sickness hits, when the toilet will overflow, or when our oven will decide to quit working without giving a polite two-week notice. And whether we like to admit it or not, we can’t micromanage the other people in our homes. Even if you live alone, at some point, your habits, routines, and systems will intersect with what other people are or are not doing, and you need to make adjustments to avoid a crash.
For example, your plan to get up early every morning to spend uninterrupted time with the Lord can easily be derailed by a child who decides to rise early, too or insomnia that keeps you awake throughout the night, leaving you exhausted as the morning sun rises. Before you’ve even put the seed in the ground, you already feel discouraged and defeated.
We tend to give up when this happens because “it didn’t work.” We forget that when taking the first steps of establishing new and better habits (especially spiritual habits), we are bound to meet resistance, and we will need a healthy dose of perseverance and hope for the future.
This past spring, my husband plowed a new plot of land for a garden. But because we had such a wet spring, the freshly turned clay soil turned into a field of rock-like clods of dirt. It felt pointless even to try planting anything in that unpliable ground. Though our seeds got off to a slow start, and some rows needed replanting, eventually, as we worked the soil, hoeing, mulching, and gently watering, it began to soften, and many of those seeds finally sprouted and, in time, became a long-awaited harvest of beets, pumpkin, squash, and other tasty veggies.
Be encouraged to continue through the initial struggle of planting new lifegiving habits. Missing your routine for one day or even longer does not mean you are a failure. You have not failed unless you claim defeat and stop planting altogether. Get up the next day, pick up where you left off, and go again.
That said, you will need more than just grit to keep going when the way is hard. You need to know why you are doing what you’re doing and planting certain seeds. You need to know what you want to harvest! That is your long-term goal.
Harvest (My Long-Term Goal): A vibrant, daily walk with God that results in a Christ-honoring, Spirit-filled life.
A worthy goal indeed, but it won’t happen on its own and won’t happen in a week or two. For that goal to come to fruition, I must have consistent, purposeful actions that set the direction of my life. As I process through what needs to take place, I can identify that one thing I need to do is spend time in the Word of God each day. My next step is to identify and develop a habit to help me accomplish that (my what) and then plan a routine and system (my how). Here’s how my daily Bible reading habit, routine, and system currently look:
Habit (what): Reading a portion of the Bible every day.
Routine (when/where): Each morning, after I get ready for the day, I will read the Bible in the kitchen while I drink my morning tea.
System (how): I will keep my Bible, pens, journal, and any other supplies together in one place, so it’s easy for me to grab everything. I will also plan where and what to read (reading through a specific book of the Bible, reading through a devotional, doing a topical study through the Bible, etc.).
When life happens, and I am up with a sick child through the night, have an unusually early appointment, or have overnight guests and an off-kilter schedule, it’s okay. I can adjust and compensate for those changes, but I will not give up in defeat because I missed one (or more) days of my typical morning devotions routine. I know that the harvest I am working towards is a close walk with my Saviour, and I will resume my regular habit as soon as possible. My habit is not the end destination – it is a means to keep me moving in the direction I need and want to go.
Sometimes, my routines and systems might change drastically because of life seasons. My daily devotional time has looked very different through the years. It has often been in the morning, which is what I prefer, but other times it has been in the afternoons while my busy toddlers napped. During different seasons, I listened to the Bible while I went for a brisk morning walk. Sometimes I have worked through a devotional, and sometimes I’ve slowly studied through a book of the Bible. Sometimes I’ve read through the Bible book by book, one chapter at a time, and sometimes I’ve followed a chronological reading plan. But because my end goal remains the same, I can tweak my habits, routines, and systems to flow with the current rhythm of life.
If you’ve struggled to develop and maintain life-giving habits in the past, lift your eyes towards the future and catch a vision of how much lovelier your “garden of life” could be with thoughtful “seed habits” planted consistently over time.
For Further Reading: Thoughts from the Garden
Are you ready to exchange the chaos of haphazard living for the blessings of a well-ordered life? Next, let’s discuss how to get started planting simple, effective habits.
How to Get Started Developing Lifegiving Habits
- Pray for God’s Wisdom. If God counts the very hairs of our heads (that we often feel like pulling with frustration), bottles our tears (that we often cry out of discouragement), and knows our very thoughts (that are often so scattered and anxious), don’t you think that He cares about something as important as the way we spend our hours? (see James 1:5; Matthew 10:30-31; Psalm 56:8-9; Psalm 139:23). Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Ask God for specific wisdom on how you can best honor Him with your days, and ask for the perseverance you’ll need to remain consistent.
- Decide On the Harvest. What do you hope to harvest in the coming weeks, months, and years? What is important to you? My family loves zucchini, so I plant a lot of that veggie. But if you don’t enjoy zucchini, don’t plant any! Your “garden of life” doesn’t need to look like the garden of your friend, sister or that popular gal on YouTube. Learn from others, but work within the unique season God has placed you in, using the specific provisions He has given you.
- Make a Plan Before You Plant. Once you know what you want to harvest (your desired goal), think through what seeds (habits) you will need to plant consistently to achieve that goal. When will you plant those seeds (routine), how will you do it, and with what tools (system)? Having the plan in your head is a start but writing it down will have even more impact! You don’t need a fancy planner – any notebook or even sticky notes will do (though investing in a pretty planner might help keep you motivated to use it!).
- Pace Yourself Realistically. Those of us who have ever attempted New Years’ resolutions know how exciting it can be to brainstorm a hundred things we want to accomplish by the same time next year. We also know how deflating it can be to reach February 1st and realize how much we’ve already slacked off on. The better part of wisdom is to prayerfully choose one to three key areas where you’d like to see growth in the next year instead of spreading yourself so thin that you can’t possibly keep up with your expectations.
- Keep Up the Good Work. Remember that forming new habits and refining old ones takes patience. Some seeds will pop up quickly, and you’ll be able to start enjoying the fruit very soon. Other seeds take months before they produce anything. Tending a garden is hard work, and so is cultivating a well-ordered life: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Galatians 6:9)
Need Some Helpful Ideas? Here’s How Others are Conquering Their Chaos through Lifegiving Habits
Remember earlier how I said that much of the feedback I received was either loud silence or “Sorry, can’t help you because I don’t have any”? Thankfully for all of us, I also got some great ideas from my friends and family. Interestingly, most responses fit into three universally important categories. They are:
- Habits of daily time with the Lord
- Habits of meal planning/gathering for meals as a family
- Habits of housekeeping and homemaking
Some of these are habits I’m practicing, some are ones others have shared with me, and all of them are great ideas for you to choose from for ideas. Remember, these are ideas for simple steps that you can take to bring more calm into your life and home. Be inspired, not overwhelmed, and choose one or two that you’d like to implement in an area of your life that needs a little tweaking!
Simple Habits for Daily Time with the Lord
- Choose a regular time and place where you will meet with God every day and show up! Several people mentioned how important it is for them to spend time first thing in the morning before the phone starts ringing and the cares of the day start pressing in. I know mornings are not always possible, depending on your life circumstances, but having some set time every day is vital.
- Keep the supplies you need (Bible, notebook, pens) together in a handy spot.
- Pare your Bible time with something else you also enjoy – your morning tea or coffee, sitting by a favorite window, or lighting a candle. One friend told me that she reads her Bible while she has a morning bubble bath – it’s hard to get her weary body out of bed many mornings, but knowing that a warm bath awaits her helps give her the motivation she needs to get up early.
- Keep your devotional time fresh by intentionally changing your method from time to time –reading through the Bible book by book, listening to an audio Bible while walking, or working through a devotional study are a few ideas.
- Listen to an audio Bible or sermon or spend time praying while you get ready for the day – this is not a regular substitute for more focused time in the Word and prayer but an excellent way to supplement it. I’ve been using the Dwell app for almost a year now, and it is fabulous.
- Make a point of regularly sharing what God is teaching you with somebody else – one easy way is to send out a text with a verse God encouraged you with that day.
For Further Reading: Flourish: How to Thrive and Grow in Your Relationship with God
Simple Habits for Meal Planning and Family Meals
- Choose a time and place where you will meal plan for the week and show up!
- Keep the supplies you need together and easy to grab – preferably in the kitchen so you can scan your fridge and freezer for what you’ve got on hand.
- Theme your meals, for example Taco Tuesday, Breakfast for Supper Saturday, Fend-for-Yourself Friday (that last one sounds very tempting, but I’ve yet to try it!)
- Involve your family in the menu planning by asking for ideas and input – it may turn out that some of your family’s favorites are also the easiest to make. That’s a win-win!
- Make double batches of meals whenever possible and either freeze the extra or serve the same meal (or a variation) again later in the week. (Lately, I’ve been doing this with “baked potatoes.” I fill my large slow cooker with enough potatoes for 2-3 meals. We’ll have baked potatoes for one dinner, and then I pop the rest into the fridge – ready for a quick hash or soup throughout the week).
- Streamline prep time by chopping vegetables for multiple meals at once, frying two or three meals worth of ground beef at the same time, or making and freezing sandwiches for fast lunches ahead of time.
- If you are a morning coffee drinker, prep your coffee machine the night before and set the delay start (I’m not a morning coffee drinker, but I sometimes wish I was because there is nothing quite as lovely as waking up to the aroma of coffee brewing!).
Simple Habits for Homemaking and Housekeeping
- Keep a visual calendar for tracking appointments, due dates, and other essential details. Whether you keep a paper calendar on your desk, wall, or fridge, the physical act of writing things down helps cement them in your brain. Plus, if you have a spouse or children, it helps keep everybody on the same page. I also set an alert on my phone and share that alert with my husband’s digital calendar so that multiple reminders are coming my way.
- Make a written plan for your day. Whether you use an expensive fancy-pants planner or a dollar store notebook, mapping out your days is key to exchanging chaos for calm. There are many ways to do this, so try some different ideas until you settle on a method that works for your current season of life. One friend told me that each day, she looks ahead to that same day next week and writes out her plan for that day. I’ve never tried this method, but it sounds like an excellent idea if writing out the plan for a whole week or month at a time overwhelms you.
- Choose specific days for doing particular household chores. For instance, Thursday is sheets and towels day in our house. I’m far more likely to keep up on a task if it has a scheduled spot in my weekly rotation!
- Make full use of your various machines’ delay start functions. Every evening, my husband and kids put their dirty clothes into the washing machine (I wash my clothes separately because boys tend to be awfully dirty!), and then I set the delay start, so the clothes finish washing early the next morning. That way, stray socks don’t get missed, the supply of clean clothes is reset every day, and nothing gets musty sitting wet in the machine for hours. It’s so rewarding to have a load of laundry humming in the dryer before I’m fully awake!
- Lay out your next day’s outfit the night before (and have your children do the same). There’s nothing worse than scrambling to find matching clothes on a hectic morning, and even when you don’t have anywhere you have to rush off to, it helps the morning get off to a calmer start.
- Clean up the kitchen as you go. Keep a sink full of hot, soapy water for things that need to soak or be hand washed and put everything else right into the dishwasher as you finish with them.
Now It’s Your Turn!
Planting the good seed of life-giving habits is hard work, but it is beautiful, worthwhile, and doable. I’ve learned slowly through the years what a gift it is to my family, myself, and others when I faithfully plant and tend to simple but meaningful habits that breathe peaceful calm into what would otherwise be a scattered, scurried, chaotic home.
Small, life-giving habits (and the systems and routines that make them possible) empower us to live lives that bring glory to Christ, bless others, and are truly enjoyable because we are not just surviving – we are flourishing!
Scriptures for further meditation:
“LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.” (Psalm 39:4)
“O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” (Deuteronomy 32:29)
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
“I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” (John 9:4)
“Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16)
“Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:17)
“Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17)
“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)
“Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.” (Proverbs 31:25, 27)
“And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” (Psalm 90:17)
For Further Reading: 3 Valuable Lessons Gardens Teach about Strengthening Relationships