Humming Along: How to Compose New Habits

I have flailed and I have failed. Too many days I have meted out grating cacophony, loose and disordered.

There’s a time to stir porridge, but someone howls, “I can’t find socks!” and I’m digging about for two purple ones the same size, preferably holeless, to soothe teary angst, while oatmeal burns black.

There’s a time to collect curious ones to read a stack of nourishing words, and the washing machine sirens its last spin and I’m stringing up a pinned necklace of wet towels and children and reading time scatter.

There’s a time for everything under heaven. And that is the time we need.  A certain time for everything, a steady beat to our days.

Parenting Performance

Parenting is the composing, the performing, of music, song upon song. Musicians play one right note after the next right note after the next right note. It’s not an erratic splattering of sound, a fickle, helter-skelter banging of random notes. Music has order. It is composed. Notes are intentional, considered, deliberate.

As music has rhythm, recurring refrains, order, so does peaceful parenting. One action thoughtfully follows the next action that wisely follows the next. Days of habits, fluid and lyrical, create pleasing harmony. Lives with known rhythms, thoughtful arrangements, sing.

I have flailed and I have failed.

But there is hope. Listen. Can you hear the serenade of His Kingdom? “Behold I make all things new (Rev 21:5). I am about to do something new (Isa 43:19).” We with shapeless, jarring songs may, thankfully, choose new songs.

Ritual Rhythms

I watch my daughter sit before white keys, wrists arched, her fingers stretching into song. Each finger knows where to stroke next. She hardly thinks; it’s nearly automatic, unconscious. So goes our daily songs, the essence of our habits.

“Forty-five percent of what we do every day is habitual,” posit researchers. “This is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of the subtle cues.”

We play a note that becomes a subtle cue for another note to always follow: rise and pray. Or check the internet. Or go for a run. Day after day we practice our chosen series of notes, the actions cued by other actions. We become a song. As Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

To sing new songs, we need to pay attention to our rituals, the beat of our days, even more than focusing on self-discipline. For the power of association, what note accompanies a time and place, may in fact be more potent in habit formation than simple willpower. Researchers suggest that the elements that cue specific behaviors fall into four general categories:

  1. Specific location or time of day
  2. A certain series of actions
  3. Particular moods
  4. Company of specific people

As each bar of music accompanies the previous string of notes, so our actions synchronize with particular locations, times, moods and people. If we want to form a new habit, we must associate that new, unfamiliar behavior with an established activity.

“Habits are formed when the memory associates specific actions with specific places or moods,” said Dr. Wood, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. Actions seek accompaniment: couch-cup of tea, make dinner-wash hands, bedtime-book reading.

Chaos into Cadence

Throughout the day, consider the next beat. Compose a string of notes.

  1. Couple meal times with Scripture memorization and prayer.
  2. Yoke read-alouds with tea-time.
  3. Arrange Latin to follow math to follow grammar.
  4. Choreograph a series of steps: laundry, bedrooms, breakfast.

Create your rhythm, a harmony of habits that are prompted by a definite location or time. Turn chaos into cadence. Keep time with the time there is for everything under heaven.

I watch my daughter play new songs and I know: learning new songs is often challenging, even frustrating. But once the piece is mastered? She plays nearly effortlessly. Too, composing a new refrain of behaviors, a chorus of rituals, is deliberate, slow, trying work. But once the behaviors become habits, rhythmic rituals, we catch ourselves singing without thinking.

And in reality, living in cacophony is more wearing than the hard work of practicing habits. “Laziness means more work in the long run,” writes C.S. Lewis. Flubbing away at whatever strikes our fancy leaves us in far worse dire straits than applying ourselves to the work of playing concertos.

“Habit is ten natures!” writes Charlotte Mason, who thought habit formation was actually one third of the entire educational process. “If I could but make others see with my eyes how much this saying should mean to the educator! How habit, in the hands of the mother, is as his wheel to the potter, his knife to the carver–the instrument by means of which she turns out the design she has already conceived in her brain.”  Because habit is what governs nature easily.

Sacred Songs

While peace wilts in an atmosphere of unpredictability and inconsistency, where every single action is open to debate, children thrive in an environment of routine. Rituals determine the next chords and simply being familiar with the melody fosters security, soothes anxiety, promotes confidence. Our song becomes our everyday liturgy, the sacred sway of our hours that rocks and comforts our children.

I have flailed and I have failed.

But today sings new with hope rhythms, rich and full, a melody that keeps time with the time for everything under heaven.

I am humming along.

©2008, Ann Voskamp

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