These simple changes to the way your life is “designed” can make all the difference.
Spiritually, I knew I needed a change. I wasn’t doing well at keeping my prayer commitments. This was about 10 years ago, and I wasn’t failing because I was unmotivated. I was — and am — extremely motivated. Somehow, though, instead of grabbing my prayer book as I’d promised myself I would, I’d grab my phone instead, or lose myself in daily activity and distraction. Before I knew it, the day would be over, I was tired, and my prayers were still un-prayed.
I knew that the answer wasn’t to try harder. I was already trying the hardest I could. What I needed was a way to actually remember to pray, to develop a simple, natural habit that wouldn’t be a constant struggle with self-control.
I ended up finding the inspiration I needed, believe it or not, from a totally unrelated article I read at Strong Towns about how roads are designed.
Have you ever noticed that certain types of roads make you want to drive your car extremely fast? If the road is wide, flat, and straight, there’s an irresistible urge to hit the gas. On the other hand, if a road is narrow and tree-lined, traffic naturally moves slower. The posted speed limit can be a tremendous struggle to maintain if a road physically encourages fast driving. Many drivers might not even notice they’re exceeding the limit because they instinctively feel like they’re going too slow. What we end up with is roads where all of the traffic is moving too fast and no amount of speed limit signs will succeed in slowing it down. The lesson, as the article summarizes, is that, “We can’t regulate our way to safety. We must design our streets to be safe.”
Thinking about design when it comes to behavior also works in other areas. For instance, if I want to eat healthier but am struggling with willpower, I can make simple changes like switching to smaller bowls, which influences the perception of portion size. Or I can make intentional choices at the grocery store so that, later at home when I’m craving a late-night snack, there’s literally no way to give in to the temptation and indulge.
The idea of design and how it influences behavior got me thinking about my spiritual life. Are there small, effortless changes I could make that would naturally encourage regular prayer time? I experimented and found that, Yes, there are indeed “design” changes that, although seemingly insignificant by themselves, make a big difference.
Here are a few of the changes that worked for me.
Get up and walk
I’ve already written on the topic of how beneficial walking is to promote concentration. I’m still walking when I pray and find that it makes a world of difference. If I sit down and pray, I quickly lose interest and pull out my phone. If I walk, that never happens. As the priest Romano Guardini says, “When the occasion is religious, what a beautiful thing walking can be!”
Pray in the morning instead of the evening
For you night owls, it might be the other way around, pray in the evening instead of the morning. I do pray throughout the day, but have learned to accomplish the majority of my prayer in the morning. I’m far more alert then, less inclined to excuse myself because I’m tired, and genuinely look forward to these quiet moments at the birth of each new day.
Choose a particular location to pray
It has to be a place I never check my phone, no computer, no television. For me, the perfect place is at church. The sacredness of the space always discourages me from pulling out my phone – I leave it sitting on the pew while I walk the aisles, anyway – and it’s always quiet and peaceful. If I try to pray at home amid all the chaos the children create and the other entertainment and distractions there, I never pray as well as I do in the church. For other people, this location may be as simple as a prayer nook, sitting on the back porch, or in the park. Whatever works for you.
Have a memory trigger
One common habit is to say a prayer every time you walk up steps, or walk from the house to the car, or when exiting the front door. These little habits are easy to form so that we pray throughout the day. For more sustained prayer time, I’ve simply scheduled my prayer time right before morning Mass every day. I’ve designed it so that I remember to pray at exactly the same time every day.
Use your commute time wisely
Driving a car is a stressful experience and no one likes commuting, but we can use that time to our advantage. St. Charles Borromeo was giving this same advice 500 years ago, telling his parishioners that they could pray while riding the wagon out to the fields on the farm! Instead of automatically turning the radio on in the car, use the sound system to your advantage. Listen to a Rosary or a spiritual talk.
These simple changes to the way my spiritual life is “designed” have made all the difference. Like anyone, I still have good days and bad days, but now it’s far more good than bad and my prayer life is more consistent. More importantly, it doesn’t feel like a constant battle. It’s become more natural, a part of the rhythm of my day.
Over time, we cannot force ourselves to be more spiritual, but with a few small changes we can lessen the need to force ourselves at all. And that’s the point of it all, anyway, right? To have a natural, easy, and fruitful relationship with God.