Thoughts create actions. Actions create habits. Habits create character. - Matthew Kelly
Ash Wednesday marks the start of one of the holiest seasons of the year for millions of Catholics worldwide: Lent. A 40-day period with a focus on “giving something up” in order to grow closer to God and become a better version of ourselves. Although fasting is at the core of the Lenten season, so many of us have oversimplified this to be another shot at our failed New Years resolutions, rather than it’s true purpose of renewing our spirit, accepting Christ’s invitation to renovate our character, and preparing our souls for His resurrection.
The discipline of fasting during Lent is incredibly important. Paired with prayer, we will ensure that our sacrificial efforts are not fruitless. It’s not merely about “giving something up,” it’s about gaining something great - becoming closer to the person God intended you to be.
So as we enter the season of Lent, let us embrace this time for what it is truly meant for and explore how we can get the most out of the next 40 days so that it makes an impact on our character for the next 40 years. Let’s use Lent as an opportunity to closely examine temptation and habit.
Why is fasting so difficult? Why is it tough to give something up? Why is it such a challenge to change our habits? Human beings, by our very nature, are weak-minded and battered by flaws. None of us are perfect. We are all sinners. And left to our own devices, we will consistently choose the path of least resistance. Our brains have been purposely engineered to be as efficient as possible, exerting the least amount of effort necessary for survival. Our bodies are built to conserve energy until we need to use it. Why else do you think you hit the snooze button every morning? Starting your day takes a decisive, conscious effort. A decision. You would rather just stay in that warm, comfy bed. And so many of us do just that as we hit snooze again...and again...and again.
When we consider replacing our bad habits with healthy ones, like eating better or exercising more, we place emphasis on qualities such as “mental toughness” or “willpower” as the necessary ingredient for us to succeed. We deify these qualities as if they are some superhuman power we must possess in order for us to become better. If we indulge in our vices, then we sulk over the thought that we weren’t mentally tough enough. That we do not have the “will” to change. We believe we are weak. And eventually, so many of us just give up and revert back to our comfort zone.
I have good news. You are no different than those who you admire for having that superhuman will-power. You can do exactly what they do. However, to do so, you must change your mindset. You need to shift your thinking. You must see that it’s not just about avoiding or ignoring temptation to change your habits. It’s about eliminating temptation altogether.
I love Oreos. I love dipping Oreos in milk. I love Oreos in my ice cream. And I love a good Oreo milkshake (from Chik-fila, especially). The problem is, I also want to stay in good shape and be healthy. Do you see my dilemma? I can’t be in great shape, eat healthy, and have Oreos whenever I want. If I ate Oreos all of the time, I would gain weight and would be further away from my best-self. Therefore, I need to adjust my habits.
This seems rather simple. Just exert some self-discipline and eat fewer Oreos. But for so many of us, including me, it’s not. Because I will experience a moment of weakness. It’s inevitable. And in that moment, I will eat an Oreo. Maybe more than one. Most likely, more than one. I will come home from a long day at work, be hungry, lazily look in the pantry for something quick to eat, and right there in front of me, taunting me, enticing me, will be a pack of Oreos. The more I do this, the easier it gets to reach into that pantry the next time and grab the Oreos again. Preparing a healthy snack is harder. It doesn’t taste as good. It may take more time. But the Oreos are right there, easy, accessible. Without even trying, I’ve developed a habit.
In most cases, will-power is not a tough enough defense because we are human and will all experience moments of weakness. But there is one way that will guarantee that I do not reach for those Oreos in my inevitable moments of weakness - if the Oreos aren’t even there to begin with. If the Oreos do not exist. If I eliminate the temptation. If I stock my pantry with almonds and other healthy snacks. Then, I cannot indulge. It’s impossible. And if I eliminate the temptation long enough and replace it with better options, eventually I stop craving it altogether. Eventually I develop the mental toughness - the “willpower” - to say no when faced with it. Because no longer do I even want it. I’ve replaced my bad habit with a better one that will draw me closer to my best self.
This doesn’t mean I’ll never eat Oreos again. That would be insanity. But it does mean I’ve gained control over when I eat them. And most importantly, I’ve gained control over why I eat them. Not because it’s easy. Not because it’s quick. Not because it’s routine. I’ve taken control over the mindless habit of reaching in the pantry when I need a quick snack.
You see, we are our habits. Day after day, we become a product of our routines. So many of us want to change, we want to eliminate bad habits. We want to make strides toward becoming our best-selves. This is why New Year’s resolutions are so popular. We crave a “fresh start.” And Lent can be another opportunity for that fresh start. However, what we fail to notice is that the habits we need to change may not be the most obvious. In fact, we may not see them as habits at all. They are the small, seemingly insignificant temptations we surround ourselves with day after day, without us even knowing, that compound and lead to bigger, more destructive decisions.
So, what are your Oreos?
We are all humans that will ultimately have moments of weakness. If we can create an environment that forces us into good habits - good decisions, rather than poor ones - then we can strengthen our character and take a giant leap toward the best-version-of-ourselves.
What are the temptations that you need God’s grace to intervene and help you overcome this Lenten season? Do you want to eat healthier? Do you want to exercise more? Do you need to stop procrastinating? Do you want to spend less time on your phone? And what are the things you can do during Lent to create a healthier environment and develop the good habits you seek? Read every night before bed? Engage in more prayer? Serve those in need? Sometimes simply replacing bad habits with healthier ones will give you the boost you need.
Some research says it takes approximately 21 days to form a new habit. That number is highly debatable. Lent is 40 days. Almost double the amount of time to work consistently, day-in and day-out, on changing your behavior into one that brings you closer to the best-version-of-yourself. In forty days you can make changes that will last a lifetime.
I can promise you it will be hard at first. It will feel uncomfortable. Your brain and your body will be working too hard and will want to revert back to the “easy” way. The way that takes less conscious effort. But with consistency it will get easier. And by that third week you will be in a new routine. Before you know it, that new routine is simply who you are. Because as we already know, you are your habits.
Mental toughness is overrated and over glorified. Eliminate temptation and change your habits, one decision at a time. That’s how you strengthen your character. And that’s how you become the best-version-of-yourself.