“ No behavior happens in isolation. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behavior.”- James Clear
A few days after I arrived at the formation house to begin my new life as a “consecrated woman in training” I was given a small piece of laminated paper. On it was written the “Te Deum” prayer. This ancient hymn of praise dates back to the 4th century or earlier and was allegedly sung by St. Ambrose on the occasion of St. Augustine’s baptism. So cool, right? I was told to place it next to my bed so that it was the first thing I saw every morning. As soon as the wakeup call was given each woman threw back the covers and immediately started making the bed. That took some getting used to but that’s another story. As we made our beds we glanced at the card and recited our “Te Deum.” It took a few months but soon the habit had stuck and I had memorized the prayer in full. As my feet hit the floor I instinctively started straightening my sheets and recited the words in my head:
You are God: we praise you;
You are God: we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father:
All creation worships you.
I’d head for the shower and be continuing with:
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
The eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
You did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death,
And opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
As I’m typing this now I’m realizing what a beautiful habit that was. With minimal effort on my part, I was given a way to incorporate one of the most beautiful early Christian hymns into my daily routine. Heck, it didn’t even add a block of time to my day and I was interiorly singing words of praise, gratitude and faith. It fit seamlessly into the fabric of things I was already doing but was transformative.
Behold, my first encounter with the power of spiritual “habit stacking!”
Let me explain.
The idea of “habit stacking” comes from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. This book is a #1 best seller for a reason. It’s an invaluable resource for anyone trying to build healthier habits or break away from negative habit patterns. I won’t go into a summary of his book here. But I want to briefly describe a transformative practice he describes in detail in chapter five: habit stacking.
James Clear states that “One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top.”
Habit stacking is the simple “life hack” of tacking on a desired behavior to one you already do without thinking or planning. He breaks it down further: “The key is to tie your desired behavior into something you already do each day. Once you have mastered this basic structure, you can begin to create larger stacks by chaining small habits together. This allows you to take advantage of the natural momentum that comes from one behavior leading into the next. (74)”
To my mind, this is sheer genius and I find myself constantly looking for ways to “outsmart myself” by adding on better habits to the areas of life that come naturally to me. As a spiritual director, I am often reaching for the power of “habit stacking” when someone is just beginning to pray regularly or when someone is making a huge life transition and is struggling to fit prayer in.
Let me share with you a few powerful “spiritual add-ons” that tie in well with things you are doing already.
Before I do that though, let me offer a huge disclaimer. To have a truly rich and fruitful spiritual life, there must be times in your day, week, month and year that are not “stacked.” You will never, ever, not for a single second, regret setting aside time for God alone. Where your heart and mind are present as much as possible to Him and Him alone. In fact, setting aside that time will make your spiritual “habit stacking” more effective. It will feel more natural to incorporate time with God into your other daily habits when you have developed the habit of setting aside time just for him. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day alone in your room or a chapel…start there and see what happens!
Okay, now for some easy habit stacking ideas in the spiritual life. Hopefully a few of these will speak to you and you can “stack” some of the core pillars of the spiritual life into things you already do each day. I’ll share the spiritual practice, and then a few ways you can “habit stack”it. I won’t go into the details of each spiritual practice. My focus here is to give you tips on how to incorporate them as habits.
If you are looking for a truly comprehensive and easy-to-read explanation of these pillars of the spiritual life, I highly recommend the book Plan of Life by Fr. Roger Landry. He unpacks the “whys” and “how tos” behind every spiritual practice that is recommended by the Church.
1. Morning Offering
A morning offering sets the tone for your day by making everything you will live and experience that day a prayer to God. I love thinking of a morning offering as a way to open yourself up to all the ways God desires to love you throughout the day. It’s a big giant “yes” to His grace and presence.
I love this simple morning offering:
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world,
in reparation for my sins,
for the intentions of all my relatives and friends,
and in particular
for the intentions of the Holy Father.
I also love the idea of writing my own prayer that encapsulates my own heart and the specific things I want to focus on when I’m surrendering my day to God. A retreat is a great time to write your own morning offering and a great way to remind yourselves of those deep spiritual truths of the retreat long after you come home.
And yet it’s easy to forget this habit when you’re half awake and uncaffeinated. Try one of these ideas to stack this practice and make it a seamless part of your morning routine:
Write your morning offering on a piece of paper and stick it to your bathroom mirror. Pray it as you are brushing your teeth.
Frame a morning offering and have it beautifully displayed where you make your morning coffee
Type it as your phone screensaver so you see it first thing each day.
Stack it with another good morning habit, like stretching!
“Give me an army saying the rosary, and I will conquer the world!” Pius IX
“The rosary is the school of prayer.” Pope Francis
I’ve had seasons of my life when it’s been very difficult to feel motivated to pray the rosary. Making the commitment again has been the fruit of habit stacking for me. I try to pray it on my daily walks to the park with my daughter. Before that, I prayed the rosary as soon as I got in my car to head to work. My spiritual director encouraged these habits and also urged me to choose at least one day of the week in which I prayed the rosary alone, without any other activity on top of it. This has been harder to commit to, but I find that the focused, uninterrupted prayer of the rosary helps me fall in love with this prayer more, I truly feel the presence of Mary mothering me in those times.
I encourage you to find something that you do each day that can be your “cue” to pray the rosary: waiting in the carpool line, walking the dog, driving etc. There are a few great albums on spotify and apple music that you can turn on if you are easily distracted.
Or, find a “cue” for your whole family: “Before we ____ (sit down for dinner, start homework, watch a movie on Friday night), we pray the rosary together.” Make it simple, concrete and repeatable. You will not regret this!
3. Spiritual Reading
Spiritual reading is the unsung hero of the spiritual life in my opinion! If you could fit in 10 min of spiritual reading a day for six months, I promise you it will change your life. The truths of the faith articulated in good and holy books are transformative. And yet so many of us find it hard to open a book and can go months without doing any serious reading.
Are you an audio book person? Try stacking spiritual reading on top of your exercise routine or daily walk by listening to a book as you go. Or, play a book on audible for 10 minutes while you get ready in the morning. Write down “When I ____ (get ready, make dinner, do laundry) I will listen to a spiritual book.”
Hate audio books? Try to break down your new spiritual reading habit by replacing your nighttime internet scrolling habit. Place your phone away from your bed, preferably away from your bedroom (I’d love to see a comeback of the good ole’ fashioned alarm clocks so our phones can be turned off at night!). Place your book right next to your bed on your nightstand. Try to read just 3 or 4 pages a night before you fall asleep. End your reading with a quick prayer of gratitude and enjoy a much more peaceful night’s sleep. This little habit stack alone will accumulate to almost 1,500 pages a year!
4. Visiting the Blessed Sacrament
I know this can be a little challenging, especially if you live far from a church. But I highly encourage you to locate your nearest parish and see how it fits in with some of your routine car trips: your daily commute, trips to the grocery store or your gym. Find a way to physically pass by and cue your brain to pull in for a few minutes.
Or is there something you do every week that you can “cue” for this habit? For example: “When I ____ (go to Trader Joes every week), I will stop by the parish and spend a few minutes before the Blessed Sacrament.” It may seem silly but I find myself doing this with my best friends. My friend Kate and I have a recurring park date every Tuesday before naptime. So why not try the same with Jesus?
One girl I know experienced massive growth in her spiritual life because she paused in her campus chapel on her way home from class a few days a week.
A high school student I knew many years ago told me that he decided to change his commute to school every day so that he’d be forced to pass by the parish. He said, “every day I see the church doors on my way home and it is my daily cue to pull in and stop for 5 minutes.” I was so moved by that!
5. The Word of God
We need to surround ourselves with the living Word of God in order to know the heart of God. Here are a few ways to incorporate daily Scripture into your life:
Podcasts like “The Bible in a Year” are great for this! Stack this practice on top of your daily walks, household chores or commute. “When I ___ (do my hair and makeup every morning) I will listen to The Bible in a Year.” Boom! Done!
I know a woman who wouldn’t let herself drink her coffee unless she paired it with her scripture reading. She basically stacked these two habits until they were inseparable from each other. I’d pretty much do anything for my morning coffee, so I personally would find this very effective!
Make it simple and concrete: “Each morning when I drink my coffee I will sit in my arm chair and read the daily mass readings.”
This same principle can apply to incorporating the Liturgy of the Hours or working through one specific book of the Bible.
6. The biggest/hardest: Your internal dialogue!
When was the last time you followed the train of your own thoughts? If you take time to step back, you will realize that we spend so much time each day talking to ourselves in our own head. We make judgements of ourselves, worry about countless problems, stress about x, y, and z…the list goes on.
Tomorrow try something different. It’s going to feel odd, but I promise it will get easier. Instead of your internal “monologue,” try to turn your thoughts, judgements and worries into a dialogue:
“Jesus, I’m so exhausted today. I didn’t get enough sleep. Please be with me as I try to live this day well.”
“Lord, I’m feeling insecure about how that work presentation went. I’m worried I made a fool of myself. You know I struggle with remembering my true worth comes from how much I’m loved by you. Can you help me remember this truth now?”
“I’m so hurt by what this person said to me yesterday. I’m furious Lord. It feels so unfair. How do you see the situation? What is your heart toward this person that I’m struggling to love and respect right now?
Yes, this is habit stacking! What is a more pervasive daily habit than the constant stream of inner thoughts? St. Therese said that “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
Yes! It’s so practical and at the same time is meant to encompass the whole of our daily life which can take time and practice.
Can you imagine the transformation that would take place in our relationship with Jesus if we spent our day in dialogue with him? St. Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing,” and maybe this sort of inner dialogue is a part of what he meant by that!
So those are a few of my thoughts about spiritual habit stacking! Again, this idea is not meant to replace every problem in your spiritual life. As I said before, it is so important to set aside time for God alone. This is a time in which nothing is stacked and we are fully present and receptive to God’s love. As with all habits, I am a work in progress as well and better as these in some seasons than others but that’s what I’m working towards day by day.
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear how you form your own habits in the spiritual life. Please share in the comments section!