Wisdom on Autopilot
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it” — when you have it with you. (Proverbs 3:28)
Proverbs often reminds us not only to do the right thing, but to do it right away. In this case, if you owe something you should repay the debt as soon as you can. The same can be said about showing honor, offering help, giving generously, and so on – do the right thing right away.
Psychologists tell us that the habits we form through our actions create neural pathways in our brains. If we delay doing the right thing today, then it becomes easier to delay doing right tomorrow. But if we follow through and act rightly now, then tomorrow we find it easier to do the right thing again.
One simple and surprisingly effective tool for forming good habits is offered by Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology at NYU. According to Gollwitzer, you need to create an “If-Then Plan” to achieve a goal. For example, let’s say you have a goal of reducing anger in your daily life. To do this, identify a negative trigger, such as when a co-worker undermines you or when the news inflames you. Then find a positive alternative to a negative reaction, such as deep breathing and prayer.
Thus, your “If-Then Plan” becomes: “If my co-worker or the news anger me, then I will respond with three deep breaths and thirty seconds of prayer.” While it sounds deceptively simple, research shows that having a constructive response planned ahead of time – the deep breathing and prayer – doubles the likelihood of reaching your overall goal of reducing anger.*
Of course, for Christians our concern is not merely to form habits that lead to personal success, but to incorporate those habits into a life that is offered to God. We want to do the right thing right away because it is an expression of our love for God and for the people he has placed in our lives. And think how marvelous it would be if, by the Spirit of God, you trained yourself to walk automatically in the wisdom of God.
Father, thank you for the opportunity to serve you today. Please help me to do the right thing as soon as I can, out of love for you and for those around me. By your Spirit, give me the wisdom to keep forming and enacting the right habits today. In Christ’s Name, Amen.
* For a short overview of Gollwitzer’s method, see this article.