A Plan for Spiritual Discipline

In 2001, researchers in Great Britain began working with 248 people to build better exercise habits over the course of two weeks. The subjects were divided into three groups. The first group was the control group. They were simply asked to track how often they exercised. The second group was the “motivation” group. They were asked not only to track their workouts but also to read some material on the benefits of exercise. The researchers also explained to the group how exercise could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and improve heart health.

Finally, there was the third group. These subjects received the same presentation as the second group, which ensured that they had equal levels of motivation. However, they were also asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise over the following week. Specifically, each member of the third group completed the following sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on (DAY) at (TIME) in (PLACE).” 

In the first and second groups, 35 to 38 percent of people exercised at least once per week. (Interestingly, the motivational presentation given to the second group seemed to have no meaningful impact on behavior.) But 91 percent of the third group exercised at least once per week–more than double the normal rate.

The sentence they filled out is what researchers refer to as an implementation intention, which is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit…”When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.

James Clear, Atomic Habits, pgs. 69-70

Clear’s book is about helping people craft healthy habits and break bad ones and, while not a Christian book, has much in it that Christian’s could benefit from. I have already implemented a number of tips I have learned from this book in my life, but one in particular has been using this implementation intention for spiritual disciplines.

Paul tells us that we should “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7) and invites us to consider the discipline of an athlete (1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Tim 2:5), a soldier (2 Tim 2:4), and a farmer (2 Tim 2:6) as models of what our own discipline should look like. Since Paul assumes there is much for Christians to learn about discipline and self-control from the wider world, perhaps we can learn from Clear’s advice as well.

Have you thought: I’d like to read my Bible more, or I’d like to pray more, or I’d like to be more hospitable. Who doesn’t want to do those things? And for those who are gifted with a strong impulse of self-control and discipline, simply having those desires will produce the changed behavior. But, if you are someone who struggles to follow-through on good motives or stay consistent with new habits, then writing out an implementation intention might be helpful. The problem for most of us is that we rely on feeling motivated to continue the habit we want to establish. So we feel a burst of enthusiasm to read our Bibles every day, but after a week or two, our enthusiasm wanes and the discipline suddenly becomes very unattractive.

Creating an implementation intention, (or more simply, a plan), helps deliver you from your own lack of self-discipline. Clear writes, “Once an implementation intention has been set, you don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike…When the moment of action occurs, there is no need to make a decision. Simply follow your predetermined plan,” (p. 71). You do not wake up on Sunday morning and ask Do I feel like going to church today? You don’t end dinner and consider Should we do our family devotions? Once the action occurs (Sunday morning arrives, dinner ends, etc.) you follow the plan you have already decided on.

So, for example, you create a plan that says: I will read my Bible for 20 minutes every day at my desk right after I get my morning coffee. You aren’t relying on feeling disciplined or motivated every morning, rather you are creating a habit, like brushing your teeth, that becomes second nature over time. The goal is not to be dependent on the results of the habit, but to help create a system of habits that turn you into the kind of person you want to be. So the goal isn’t Every time I read my Bible or do our family devotions we receive profound insights, but rather is to create a sense of identity from the system you have created: I am the kind of person who reads their Bible everyday; we are a family who prioritizes family devotions. Of course, we want profound insights; we don’t want to just mindlessly read our Bibles, pray, do family worship, or invite people into our homes to check a box. But, and this is critical, we will never have profound insights, we will never experience intimacy in prayer, we will never establish meaningful relationships with others unless we are people who consistently read, pray, and fellowship.

The writer who sits and waits for inspiration to strike before he begins to write is likely going to be far less successful at writing inspired work than the writer who faithfully plods along every day, regardless of feeling inspired or not.

A few practical tips for writing out a spiritual discipline plan:

  • Keep it clear. Day, time, place, frequency, etc. 
  • Keep it consistent. If not every day, then specify how frequently it will be.
  • Keep it simple. Especially early on in areas you have traditionally done poorly at, aim low. The goal is to create a system of habits that can later expand as your spiritual habits become more solidified. Too often people burn out on spiritual disciplines because they aim too high as they start out. Start with habits that feel easy, doable. I will read for ten minutes; I will pray for two minutes; I will say hello to one person I don’t know at church, etc. In time, as these feel more consistent in your life, began to expand them.
  • Write it down and tell someone. Even if you don’t keep the writing, the act of writing and telling someone else will, statistically, seriously increase your likelihood of following through.

For more on this, here are two Christian books I have begun reading:

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