Isaac Newton’s first law of motion states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest. A similar law exists for human productivity and behavioral change:
A person who is moving in the right direction tends to keep moving in the right direction, and a person who is stuck tends to remain stuck.
Actually, I left something out, Newton’s first law ends with the phrase “… unless acted upon by a net force.” For an object to change its motion, it must be acted upon by a force of some kind. Here, humans differ from rocks and cannon balls and planets: We can generate our own force, and in doing so change ourselves.
Newton’s first law is really about momentum. For an object to gain momentum, it would require some kind of push or pull. Humans, on the other hand, can generate their own momentum.
When a feedback loop is working against us, it is constantly becoming harder and harder to make good choices and take positive action. If we start moving in the wrong direction, we’ll tend to keep moving in that direction. For example, when you’re don’t exercise, you fall out of shape, which makes working out more difficult and more painful, which makes you less likely to work out, so you fall even further out of shape and become even less likely to exercise. This is what it’s like to have your momentum working against you.
On the other hand, when a feedback loop is working for us, it is steadily becoming easier and easier to make good choices and take positive action. If I make a good choice in the evening – getting away from electronic screens early so I can get a good night’s sleep – I’ll wake up tomorrow more well rested. This will make it easier for me to use willpower to practice self-care during the day: meditation, exercise, etc. And then, because I’ve taken good care of myself during the day, it will be easier for me to once again make a good choice about avoiding screentime as bedtime approaches.
In other words, a series of unhealthy choices starts can spiral into an unhealthy lifestyle, but a series of healthy choices can encourage even more healthy choices. This, of course, is one more reason to resist the temptation to make unhealthy choices, but it is also an important principle to keep in mind when considering major behavioral change.
It Gets Easier
The primary lesson here is that it gets easier. Change is always hard at first, but it gets easier as your momentum shifts. And because we are notoriously bad at predicting our own emotional futures, we routinely fail to see that it will get easier. So we must remember that we have the ability to build positive momentum, and, with that in mind, power through the difficult early stages of behavioral change. If we have faith that it will get easier, we’ll have the strength to begin.
The principle of human momentum is really a message of hope for those who have been moving in the wrong direction for years. If that’s you, please know that the reason change is so difficult is structural not personal. There’s nothing wrong with you; you are capable of changing direction. It’s simply that an unhelpful momentum has built up in the feedback loop that controls your life, such that you’ve come to think, feel, and act in accordance with an unhealthy lifestyle. If you intervene in that feedback loop by taking action, you can begin to turn things around, and, over time, it will get easier.
Becoming a little better makes it easier to become even more better. A little bit of willpower spent on self-care can bring a return on investment that provides you will more total willpower than you had before. It’s necessary to keep this in mind when you consider what’s possible for your own future. That which feels impossible today probably is impossible today. But through the power of positive momentum, great things can be brought within reach.
Think of the growth of a tree. When it is a sapling, it struggles to access the precious sunlight that it needs to photosynthesize. But as it grows taller, it steadily gains access to more and more sunlight, making it easier and easier to grow. The same is true for humans: Growth begets growth. Progress begets progress. Success begets success.
You Can Choose
Recognizing that you have the ability to create positive momentum in your life empowers you to choose whom you will become. Rather than allowing the inertia of your current identity to dictate your future, choose a process-based identity: self-identify as a person who takes positive action. You won’t feel like that person at first, but if you take action consistently enough, momentum will build, and you will become that person.