Developing good habits can have a huge impact on our quality of life and happiness. Discover tips for how to build habits and cultivate positive character traits in the latest Quick Fix from The Existential Stoic Podcast.
The Existential Stoic – How to Build Habits – Quick Fix 138 – Available wherever you get your podcasts!
Have you ever tried to cultivate a certain habit only to give up after a few days or few attempts? For instance, have you ever purchased a gym membership with the intent of going on a regular basis only to find that you lose momentum after a week or just a few days?
When was the last time you failed to do something that you wanted to do because you found it too difficult or too time consuming? We all have experiences like these, and it is friction that prevents us from living the life we want and being who we want to be.
The basic concept of friction is simple enough. Friction refers to “surface resistance to relative motion” (dictionary.com). Friction therefore makes it harder for an object to move across a surface—to move in the world. When it is applied in the domain of human behavior, friction refers to the resistance we meet that makes the completion of some activity difficult. If we reduce friction that otherwise makes doing something more difficult, we make the activity easier to accomplish and increase the likelihood that we will habituate certain (positive) behaviors.
You can think of friction as, for instance, the relative steps, obstacles, difficulties, and stressors that exist making it more difficult to do what you want to do. When we reduce friction, we make doing something easier; whereas when we increase friction, we make doing something harder.
Imagine, for instance, that you want to start journaling every night before bed. In such a case, you can reduce friction by leaving your journal and a good pen on your bedside table. You reduce friction by reducing the number of relative steps (going to get your journal, finding your pen…etc.) required to complete the activity.
We just started the new year, and many people are thinking about personal development and growth. Exercise is a common New Year’s resolution, but it is one that many people struggle to stick with. Before you purchase a gym membership, ask yourself: “How can I make regular exercise easier?” Studies have shown, for example, that when we must travel more than 4 miles to go to the gym, our average attendance drops by 80%. Driving can be stressful, it takes time, and for many it is enough of an obstacle that it will inhibit them from adopting the practices they want in their life. If the gym is far from your home, it might be better to use the money you would spend on a membership on the purchase of equipment for a home gym. Doing so reduces friction by reducing the steps you have to complete to exercise.
Think in Terms of Friction
To think in terms of friction is to think in terms of relative ease—it means thinking about how to make certain activities and behaviors easier and therefore increase the likelihood that we will do them. Instead of saying to yourself—“I can’t do this.”—Ask yourself—“How can I make this easier?” We tend to do what is easiest, whatever has the least resistance and obstacles in the way.
You can also make an activity easier by combining it with activities that you enjoy. For example, if you find it difficult to exercise, you might commit to watching your favorite show only when you exercise or you might listen to your favorite music or podcast only when you go for a run. You combine something you enjoy (watching a certain show, listening to a good podcast…) with an activity you find difficult to reduce friction and make it easier. By thinking creatively about our activities and what might motivate us, we make cultivating good behaviors easier. We reduce mental friction by making something we don’t enjoy more enjoyable by combining it with an activity we enjoy. Doing so, we are more likely to find the motivation and will to accomplish and stick to the behaviors we want to adopt.
Practice is also a fundamental tool for reducing mental friction. Oftentimes, it is our imagination that blocks us from doing what we want to do. Through practice, we can prove to ourselves that certain actions are possible and develop a better understanding of what’s involved. When you practice something, you make it easier to do it without letting your imagination run wild.
I walk every morning. Doing so is not always easy, nor is the weather always agreeable. To reduce friction and make the walk easier, I started cultivating the habit when it was warm out and I was more likely to do it. I do the same walk and have a clear sense of how long it will take. I walk every day and know that I can do it. Practicing and starting when I was most likely to stick to it, I cultivated a habit of walking every day and now don’t think about it—I just walk.
We all want to live our best life and cultivate healthy habits. Start thinking in terms of friction—ask yourself how you can make certain behaviors easier so that you are more likely to do them. When we face a lot of friction, it is hard to get moving and completing our activity requires a lot of effort. When we face limited or no friction, it is easy to do what we need to and the path before us is clear.
When we face limited or no friction, it is easy to do what we need to and the path before us is clear.
“We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.”
Albert Camus points out that we “get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.”
We are born, we find ourselves in the world, in a community, full of meaning, practices, and traditions. Before we are able to think for ourselves, before we are fully conscious and self-aware, before we form our first memories, the processes of socialization and social conditioning have already started to influence us. We are taught to view the world a certain way, to see things from a certain perspective, well before we even understand that other points of view, other interpretations, are possible.
An individual might, for example, grow up in a religious household. They might spend their formative years in a family that values achievements and markers of success. Their early years might be filled with people telling them that they need to go to college, or that they need to earn high marks in school, or…
In truth, it doesn’t matter what your specific circumstances happened to be. That fact is, we are all influenced by outside factors, social practices, social pressures, expectations, and norms. We start to formulate a picture of the world, of how we should act and behave—we “get into the habit of living”—well before we start actually thinking about what life means, about what we value, and about what matters to us.
“We get into the habit of living,” of doing things a certain way, of being in the world, without ever stopping to consider whether the life we are living is right for us. When we live our lives without thinking about life, our own goals, hopes, and values may not necessarily be a reflection of what we actually want, hope for, or value.
our own goals, hopes, and values may not necessarily be a reflection of what we actually want, hope for, or value…
Camus points out that a “world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world.” Even when we recognize that the values and meanings we’ve adopted aren’t right for us, we nevertheless hold onto them simply because the prospect of changing, of thinking for ourselves, is too daunting.
In the modern, technological world, where information is passed from screen to screen instantaneously, finding the time and the quiet needed to think is a challenge in and of itself. There is always noise, a seeming infinite number of possible distractions, and all of these reaffirm certain values and ways of looking at things.
Socrates said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” He suggests that it is only through examination, through self-reflection and thinking, that life is worthwhile.
If we want to live a good life, to live our own life, then we need to start making time to think, to reflect, and we need to start taking our lives seriously.
Make time for self-reflection and self-examination. Make time to think about the life you are living and whether it reflects the values that actually matter to you. Focus first on what you think before worrying about what others think.
In the end, this is your life, and only you can live it. But you must acquire “the habit of thinking” before you can start living your own life…a worthwhile life.