The Habit You Didn't Know You Have

We all have habits. Most of them are good, like brushing our teeth every morning. Some of them are bad, like snacking habits or maybe classics like picking your nose. (There’s even an excellent book on habit formation that I consider a must-read.) Habits are a big part of what keeps us going, since putting daily tasks on autopilot frees our minds up to think about more important things than the proper steps to get dressed in the morning.

Did you hear that last one? Did you realize that one of your habits is how you get dressed? These things hide! Personally, I put on my shirt first, then pants, then socks and shoes. There’s an argument to be made for putting your socks on before you pants, though, and I’ll bet many of you do it that way. But is talking about this a habit worth our time? No.

Other habits sneak into our routine that are worth the conversation. One of mine is a snack after the kids go to bed. Am I hungry every night at that time? Sometimes, yes, but not always. But my habit is to finish the kids’ bedtimes, wash my hands, and pour my nightly snack, whether I’m hungry or not. Is this one worth considering? Considering I need to lose a few pounds, yes, it is! (This is a true story, by the way; I didn’t realize that was a habit until I sat here typing, looking for an example. Habits are sneaky!)

Habits of Expectation

I think the sneakiest habits, though, lay hidden in the way we think. Jack Mezirow is most known for his transformative learning theory, which we’ll surely discuss in a future post. But part of that theory is the idea that we all have habits not of daily routine but rather habits of mind.

The example that most resonates with me is “habits of expectation.” When we allow the world to happen to us without giving it much thought, our brains naturally latch on to patterns to help us make meaning of it and help us make decisions. For example, if so-and-so is always late to work, then you are less likely to start your day with a task that will require their help. That’s a habit of expectation.

But Mezirow delves into more subtle examples. One of them is when our habits of mind involve social norms and cultural expectations. An especially biting example comes from Patricia Cranton: 

“Growing up in a culture in which women’s roles are clearly defined as submissive shape our habits of mind about how women should behave.”

Ouch! Do you get that? If we grow up only seeing women behave a certain way and only in certain roles in society, then the mind comes to expect that pattern to continue— it forms a habit of expectation. For men, this would lead to bias against anything that doesn’t fit that pattern. I don’t suppose I can speak for women, but one can imagine the internal struggle that would follow to fit into this habit of expectation— or the psychological resistance to escape it.

Another of Mezirow’s categories is psychological. Cranton comes up with a great example here, too: what would happen if someone’s parents had very high expectations for them? If your parents always told you your work wasn’t quite good enough, your achievements never quite high enough, then it doesn’t take long to anticipate your parents’ response to whatever you do. A habit of expectation is formed that leads to motivation, a low sense of self-worth, and probably also guilt.

Bad Habits I’ll Bet You Have

The theory is all fine and good, but what do bad habits of expectation look like in real life? Well, here’s one I’ll bet we all have: the evening news. I used to work in a TV newsroom, and I got tired of people complaining about how all the news is bad. I believe that there is actually so much good in the world that it isn’t newsworthy— every day, hundreds of elementary school kids have success in every single city, babies are born, friends are made, you get the idea. The bad news is newsworthy precisely because it’s rare. But what happens when we read or watch the news every day, and it’s all bad? Our mind starts to expect bad news every day. Little by little, our perspective begins to slant and think that the world is an evil, dark place because of our habit of expectation

Most reading this blog are probably here for church leadership. So, how about the one at the center of my research: when a congregation member watches the pews get a little less full week after week, year after year, decade after decade, then indeed it’s not hard to see how some part of their mind expects that pattern will continue. Pastors feel it too— maybe even more so. This is one habit of expectation that simply can’t be avoided in our era of numeric decline. Add to that habits of expectation around rural decline, denominational decline… well,  you get the idea. (Spoiler alert: this habit of expectation kills one’s practical hope. More on that in a future post!)

The Importance of Reflection

So what do we do about it? How to combat these habits of expectation is the whole point of Mezirow’s work and the life work of many others who continue researching his theory to this day. There is much more to say here in the future, but I’ll leave you with a tidbit now so you’ll have some agency and pathway. This is dense, but take a look at how Mezirow first introduces the concept:

“uncritically assimilated habits of expectation or meaning perspectives serve as schemes and as perceptual and interpretive codes in the construal of meaning...”

Really, those first two words are enough, “uncritically assimilated habits of expectation.” The beginning of breaking our bad habits of mind starts with being aware of what forms them and thinking about it critically.

So, is the news making you see the world more darkly than it actually is? Ok, then time to name it and to start considering and praying for the countless good deeds that are so numerous as to be overwhelming. Are declining church attendance numbers killing your hope? Time to recognize the larger cultural phenomena going on, cut yourself some slack, and look for what God is doing in the midst of it.

That last phrase may be the most hopeful of all, truly an example of ultimate hope. Even by just beginning to think about these things, God is moving.

So what habits of expectation do you see in yourself? In your church?


Jack Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991).

Patricia Cranton, Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning, 3rd ed. (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC, 1994).