I won’t beat around the bush, here. The not-so-secret secret is actually from this publication by Isaac Newton way back in 1687. In it were his famous “three laws of motion” that form the basis of classical mechanics. The one that’s most important in this context is this: in an inertial frame of reference, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by a force.
Or, the slightly simplified version we learned it in middle school — an object at rest tends to stay at rest until acted on by an outside force.
… with the vast majority of habits, what we tend to stress about is the wrong aspect: we mostly worry about sticking to a habit, when we really only need to worry about starting it.
But wait, habits aren’t objects — or are they?
In terms that Newton could appreciate, allow me to explain the two problems I believe are responsible for all of our disappointment when it comes to quitting bad habits and developing healthy ones.
1. Not applying force.
How many thoughts of a healthier, happier, more productive life have you entertained? Probably a lot. If you’re anything like me, a day rarely goes by during which you don’t fantasize at least a little bit about a new routine you want to implement, a dietary change you think you should make, or some other bit of structured self-improvement you’d like to undertake. But how many of those do you even attempt? Personally, I know I’ve left a lot on the table where healthy habit-forming is concerned.
So the question is why?
Usually, the answer is that it just seems too hard. I’m all for eating less sugar, but cutting it out completely? A voice in my head says, “You just don’t have that much willpower.” The same goes for developing an exercise routine or getting up earlier in the morning. I figure I can’t keep it up in the long term, and like Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
What’s happening here? The absence of force.
Put another way:
- I have a bad habit of eating too much sugar.
- That habit is in motion.
- That habit will stay in motion until acted on by an outside force.
Now, anything can be an outside force. A Type-II diabetes diagnosis, for instance, would be a pretty powerful outside force, theoretically enough to straighten up anyone’s bad eating habits. Getting food poisoning from a cake might work the same way, giving you a sudden aversion to desserts.
But you can also be that outside force. Just don’t eat the sweet stuff, or buy that pack of cigarettes, or log into that one website where you waste three hours a day, and boom, you just stopped a habit in its tracks.
This works in reverse as well. Any habit that’s at rest requires force to put it into motion. But here’s the kicker — once in motion, the amount of force you’ll need to maintain it will be significantly reduced.
Let’s say you want to run every day. Understandably, you think that the hard part is going to be … running every day. But that’s not really true. Running the first day will be the hard part. Think of a fire — starting one can be difficult when conditions aren’t ideal, but once you get it going, it will take care of itself.
Now occasionally, will you have to restart that habit when it’s acted on by some other circumstance? Of course. If you get the flu and can’t run, that’s an outside force. When you recover, you’ll have to apply force once again and get that habit in motion.
In the case of strong addictions, I won’t pretend that an very frequent expenditure of force might not be necessary — fighting against years of positive feedback loops can mean needing to apply force over and over and over — maybe throughout every hour of the day during the first few days or weeks. But with the vast majority of habits, what we tend to stress about is the wrong aspect: we mostly worry about sticking to a habit, when we really only need to worry about starting it.
2. Not applying enough force.
I alluded to this with the mention of addiction, but in reality, all habits and individuals are unique, requiring different amounts of force to stop or start at different times. You may think, “Sure, this all sounds good, but it can’t be true — just the other day I went for a jog, but the next day had no motivation to do it again. Clearly, the habit didn’t stay ‘in motion’.”
Apply more force.
Remember that whole thing about habits taking three weeks to form? Then why do some sources say 16 days, and others 66, and others 90? Are they all wrong? Well, yes … and they’re all right. All force is not equal: leaning into something with all your bodily might is definitely an outside force capable of moving solid objects — but it’s not nearly enough of a force to push a 1-ton car uphill.
If a habit doesn’t stick, you simply haven’t applied enough force yet. And regardless of how long it takes, whether 2 days or 20 or 200, there will come a time when that habit is nothing more than second nature to you, something you don’t even think about at all.
Pseudo-psychology or paradigm shift?
This analogy isn’t that far removed from the way we think about habits normally, and it certainly doesn’t purport to be an Earth-shattering new philosophy of human psychology. The benefit to thinking of habits in this way, though, largely has to do with removing any sense of guilt while adding in a heaping dose of situational objectivity.
In other words, failing at New Year’s resolutions or dropping the ball with our self-improvement plans doesn’t make us bad or lazy people who lack willpower, can’t change, or suffer from any other vague and inane self-fulfilling prophecies. It simply means we’ve made calculating errors with regard to the amount of force that a habit change will require. There’s no shame in that, given that we have virtually no way of measuring any of those forces in the first place.
Armed with this perspective, you are no longer a musterless meat-sack. You’re a dashing, brilliant scientist, and the world is your laboratory. Get out there and let the forces be with you.
Ryan is a Helsinki-based freelancer and ghostwriter with a passion for topics rooted in psychology.