EMILY BENSON
EMILY BENSON

The first time I gave up meat for Lent I went out to dinner and ordered a burger.

It was only after I had devoured half of my delicious meat-filled meal when my friend turned to me and asked, “Hey, aren’t you giving up meat?” My hands froze around the greasy sesame-seed bun. It was like a lightbulb had gone off above my head, as I was struck with the sudden realization: Oh yeah, I was doing that.

No worries, I thought, I had a whole month to adapt. Then, the very next day, I ordered a pulled pork sandwich for lunch. Then, the following week, I was halfway through a Wing Night special before I realized that chicken, sadly, was not a vegetable.

Rewiring my brain around a new habit has always been difficult and Lent always puts that into the limelight. More than just my own forgetfulness, I will consciously struggle to add new habits during Lent, like additional prayer time or community service, and break old ones, like sleeping in late, which often ate into my prayer/meditation time. Every year I find myself either falling off the wagon entirely, or sort of staying off track as I grip the sides of the wagon for dear life, trotting along toward Easter.

I can’t be the only one thinking this: According to the Washington Post, one-third of Americans say they lack the self-control to accomplish their goals. There are even new apps made specifically to help people adapt to better habits, like better dieting or less screen time. For Catholics, we do this every year during Lent: we rewire our brain around a new habit. But why is it always so hard to keep?

Dr. Mo Therese Hannah, a professor of psychology at Siena College as well as a practicing psychologist, said that we struggle with breaking bad habits mainly because “we are creatures of habit. The human brain accumulates things.”

But I wanted to know how to acclimate my brain to an action of my choosing. Hannah said the answer lies in short-term increases and substitution. Having worked with patients who have struggled to give up habits, such as alcohol or sugary sweets (two popular sacrifices during Lent), the key was to start with short increments, even as short as “I won’t eat sweets for the next 15 minutes” or “I’m giving up wine for an hour.” Then, once the allotted time is up, you repeat the process. It also helps to add substitutes for your habit; like taking a walk instead of smoking a cigarette.

This helps when you want to add new habits as well: “If you say I’m going to get up five minutes early, anybody can do that,” she said, “and I know five minutes is not a lot but five minutes of prayer and meditation is better than nothing … and you get used to it.”

I struggle with that last part: getting used to it. Sometimes I’ll stick with a habit for a while, then fall off the wagon (after I said this, Hannah immediately noted to not kick myself for doing so, which made me want to hug her.) If I wanted to succeed in establishing my new habit, I had to plan to have bad days, and then after having one, “you pick yourself up and go onward,” she said.

“Lent is supposed to be about repentance — but it’s ultimately about renewal,”  Hannah said. “The way I think of that is we want to be our best selves, so what do we need to let go of and what do we need to adopt to be our best selves. And that’s a motivator. It’s not just giving something up but we’re getting something better as a result of that.”

Whether it’s five minutes of prayer, putting aside a few dollars for charity, or even if you give up meat and forgetfully order a meatball pizza (I don’t want to talk about it), remember that every effort — no matter what it is — counts in God’s eyes.