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.
In Nietzsche’s Dawn, he points out that at times we are all irrational. “We still continue to draw conclusions from judgments we consider false and from teachings in which we no longer believe—owing to our feelings” (Nietzsche). Even if we reject certain beliefs or customs, it is still possible that our feelings will be consistent with them. Changing how we feel is often difficult, especially when certain emotional responses and feelings are reinforced by social pressures and expectations.
We are taught to be a member of our community, to fit in. We are conditioned to experience feelings of guilt and shame whenever we deviate from the norm, whenever we fail to conform. Nietzsche calls us bound spirits when we conform to social norms and practices, when we accept the dominant perspective not for our own reasons, but because they represent the norm. What’s more, conforming is often easier than living our own, authentic life.
“Problematic.—To accept a faith merely because it is the custom—that is certainly tantamount to: being dishonest, being cowardly…”
As Nietzsche sees it, we are dishonest when we accept a faith, a perspective simply because it is the custom. In such cases, we don’t accept it on our own terms and lack reasons of our own that justify and explain why we accept a certain point of view. We are dishonest because we adopt values and beliefs that are not our own, ones that we haven’t found our own reasons for accepting.
Learning to Think Differently
“We must learn to think differently—in order finally, perhaps very late, to achieve even more: to feel differently.”
The only way to live our own lives is to think for ourselves, to think differently from the norm. We will never feel differently, we will never move beyond those experiences of shame and guilt that were a consequence of socialization and social conditioning, until we learn how to think for ourselves and do so for a long time. Even if we start questioning how we think and are mindful of our feelings, the feelings we were conditioned to experience when we deviated from the norm, from social customs, will remain with us for some time. Our feelings, in other words, are still tuned to society’s perspective rather than our own.
Our feelings… are still tuned to society’s perspective rather than our own.
In order to feel differently, we need to learn how to think differently. We need to think for ourselves and develop the strength to stand on our own. Our life is truly our own only when how we think and feel is an honest representation of who we are and what we believe.
An authentic life is an honest life in the sense that our thoughts and feelings are consistent and complementary. We are truly free and no longer bound or influenced by things like social pressures and expectations. But as Nietzsche suggests, to reach the point at which we feel differently takes time and effort.
If we live our own lives and strive to be honest with ourselves, hopefully we learn to think differently and, one day, feel differently.