Breaking Bad (Habits)

Breaking bad habits can help you become a better person.

Bad habits are hard to break. But instead of turning to Google or picking up another self-help book on how to turn those inclinations around, consider this simple method from a 16th-century Spanish mystic.

Use mental replay to find your blindspots

When I was in high school, some friends and I helped run a live radio show. I enjoyed prepping topics, and bantering on the air was quite the thrill. After a few episodes, I felt like a natural. But when I listened to a recording of one of our shows, I realized I had been making this weird smacking sound every time I got ready to speak into the mic. 

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Getting better at something requires that we honestly review the habits we’re forming and have the humility to change course. 

St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit religious order, popularized a spiritual practice known as the Examen long before the advent of recording devices. And that’s basically what it is: in the Examen, you rewind your memory and slowly replay the events of the day from start to finish. 

It can be surprising to go back over your day and “discover” things you missed. For all the good in your day — especially the “small” things you might have overlooked in the moment — it can be really gratifying to take a moment to express gratitude. But it’s in the cringey parts of your day, the things you wish you could get a do-over for, where the Examen method really shines

Taking note

St. Ignatius encouraged young Jesuits to use the Examen to tally up each instance of something they were trying to work on in their life. This might sound like a recipe for self-shame, but it can actually be a means for reclaiming agency over your circumstances

Imagine you’re trying to work on getting more sleep, so you start writing down what time you go to bed each day and what you did for the hour or so before going to bed. A tally of late nights vs. early nights can help you start to identify patterns — perhaps the nights where you spend scrolling social media tend to mean you go to bed later, for instance, or even that you don’t sleep well. 

This kind of data can be empowering. Instead of feeling shameful or discouraged, you can start to develop a more objective grasp on what you actually do — and what you in fact want to do. If you’re tired of telling yourself, “I should get more sleep,” this process can help you actually study why you’re not getting the sleep you need. 

Looking outward and upward

Bad habits can be hard to break, even after you face up to some of your blindspots and figure out some of the contributing factors for when you mess up. For as inward as the Examen is — looking back over the minute parts of your day, each and every day — the Examen actually orients you to look outward and upward

Use the Examen to help you shift your focus from things you do or don’t do to thinking more intentionally about who may be affected by your choices. “I should get more sleep” can become “when I’m tired, I lose my patience more quickly with my partner.” The Examen can help focus our attention on steps to become more considerate of those around us. Love is better fuel for habit-mending than shame. 

The Examen is ultimately a form of prayer — we begin by asking God to help us look back on our day with God’s own loving gaze, and end by asking for God’s grace to face tomorrow with the strength we need. 

The Examen: 5 steps

There are countless adaptations of the Examen, but here’s a simplified version that I’ve found to be the most helpful:

  1. Prepare (1 minute): Find a quiet spot, take a few deep breaths to slow yourself down, and ask for God’s help to see yourself as God sees you.
  2. Review (3-5 minutes): Briefly replay the events of your day. Don’t worry if you get distracted — just reset and keep playing back the day.
  3. Gratitude (1-2 minutes): Having reviewed the ups and downs of the day, savor in your memory a few things from the day you are particularly grateful for.
  4. Healing (1-2 minutes): Consider something from the day that you wish you had done differently. How might you seek forgiveness and healing? 
  5. Hope (1 minute): Ask God for the help you need to face tomorrow with hope.
Click here to download these daily journal prompts.

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