How to Begin the Process of Habit Formation

A discussion on habit formation and time management would not be complete without considering the practical application of these conversations. If how we use time is determined primarily by our habits, then how do we practically apply the ideas from my previous two articles (here and here) so that everything we do leads us to love God, love neighbor, and fulfill the Great Commission?

Everyone’s circumstances vary, so I can’t tell you specifically what to do. However, I can share some basic principles that you can apply to your unique circumstances. In this article, I’ll discuss practical ways to begin habit formation. In the next and final article of this series, I will give examples of different habits and list some helpful resources on habits.


When I began pursuing better habits and time management, I discovered that I have two default mindsets that presented challenges worth noting. I think these mindsets can be common for many people.

The first is that I am a time-hoarder. I frequently feel like I’m overcommitting (even though I’m usually not), and I do not like sharing my time. This means I’m tempted to say “no” more than I should. Ironically, this also leads to much wasted time because I treat my time as if somehow I can save it for later.

The reverse mindset, however, can also present challenges. You may say “yes” more than you should, and you actually do overcommit yourself. This can lead to burnout and spending your time on what may be good things, but not necessarily the best things. You, too, do not use your time to the best of your ability but for different reasons than someone like me.

The second mindset is the external versus internal locus of control. Though I am working to change this, I have historically operated with an external locus of control, believing that outside circumstances dictate my mood, choices, and behavior. However, someone with an internal locus of control is not so swayed by external factors, instead believing they are in control of their own “destiny” and operating with a high level of personal responsibility for their mood, choices, and behavior.

A Christian perspective on locus of control is beyond the purview of this particular article, but the simplified explanation is sufficient for our purposes. Those, like me, who tend to operate with an external locus of control will likely find habit formation more difficult than those with an internal locus of control.

Whether you’re a time-hoarder or a time-spender, whether you have an external or internal locus of control, the starting point for habit formation is the same for everyone. You simply have to begin. Here are some practical steps to building better habits and using your time well.

Practical Steps

Evaluate Your Habits and How You Use Your Time

One of the first steps of habit formation and time management is getting a grip on your current habits and how you use your time—for better or for worse. This can be as simple as paying attention to your daily rhythms. Increasing your self-awareness will go a long way as you seek to develop better habits and use your time well. If you have trouble with this, start writing down how you use your time, keeping an itemized list of what you do every hour. Or, ask close friends and/or family members to point out how they see you using your time.

Notice what time you get up in the morning, whether or not you are doing a daily quiet time, how often you read versus watch tv, or how much time you spend scrolling on your phone. Be aware of thought patterns and the reasons (excuses) you give for neglecting to exercise or pray daily. If needed, start writing these down and see if you notice any patterns.

Figure Out How Best to Implement Habits

Another step is deciding how you want to implement new habits. This involves deciding what habits you want to practice and keeping track of each day you practice them. I have a list of habits and keep track of them daily via an app on my phone, but this can easily be done with pen and paper, too. In the final article of this series, I’ll give a list of ideas for habit building and resources for habit tracking, including how we have done this with our kids.

Start with One or Two Habits at a Time

Once you have a good handle on how you currently use your time and what habits you’d like to build, it’s good to begin with one or two habits at a time. Change is hard, and changing deeply ingrained habits or creating new habits will take a decent amount of time. By starting small, we increase the likelihood of sticking to new patterns, and we can build in new habits over time.

James Clear calls this “habit stacking.” By practicing good habits and becoming efficient, we can take advantage of these patterns and begin building in new, desired habits.

Determine Your Keystone Habits

In my first article of this series, I shared about “keystone habits.” In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes keystone habits as those that matter more than others in remaking lives. I’ll share his quote again:

“Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything…The habits that matter most are ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.” (100, 101)

In other words, a keystone habit is a foundation on which all other habits build. Without it, we would either be less efficient at habit formation or, more extremely, unable to build any other habits at all. Again, my keystone habit is waking up early in the morning. Everything I do depends on waking up with enough time to pray, read my Bible, and get some work done before my kids get up.

Determining your keystone habit(s) may happen before or after you begin the process of habit formation. This all depends on your level of self-awareness and how quickly you can implement new habits. As you track how you use your time and make your list of desired habits, you may be able to pinpoint your keystone habit right away. Others may need to start the process of habit formation, experiment with different habits, then determine a keystone habit.

At the end of the day, habit formation takes very little time and effort to start. The real work happens after you take that first step. It is not an easy process, and it won’t work perfectly all the time. But the point to habits is to create rhythms that, despite interruptions and occasional failure, ultimately lead us to use our time wisely for the purpose of loving God, neighbor, and fulfilling the Great Commission.

Photo by Our Life in Pixels on Unsplash