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.
Dan Scotti, lifestyle writer and Millennial, wrote a piece titled, Why Don’t Millennials Have Hobbies Anymore? Scotti, a Millennial, doesn’t let himself off the hook: “It’s not like I have any hobbies of my own, either. None of my friends have hobbies.”
He points out that technology occupies most of his free time creating the illusion that his days are full.
“It’s as if modern technology has fooled me into thinking my life is very fulfilling. I mean, I have social media accounts to uphold, television series to chain watch and a whole bunch of dating profiles to swipe through — so, what time do I even have for hobbies?”
Scotti and his friends are obviously not alone. It’s all too easy to spend hours watching TV or to get lost in social media on our phones.
In fact, most Americans list TV as their primary hobby. According to Nielsen, the average American spends more than 4 hours a day watching TV.
The average American spends more than 4 hours a day watching TV.
While there is nothing wrong with watching TV, it is somewhat worrying when the majority of people identify watching TV as their primary hobby.
“Left to our own devices, we often opt for passive leisure—TV and web surfing are at the top of most people’s lists.”
Jaime L. Kurtz, PhD
Social media, like TV, can be a huge timewaster and a distraction. Phones present unique problems because we always have them within reach.
(Check out my article, Are You Distracted? – How to limit smartphone use, to learn more.)
Why are Hobbies Important?
A hobby is “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.”
A hobby is something you do simply because you enjoy it—you don’t have to be the best, it doesn’t have to make you famous, and you don’t have to earn money doing it.
The important thing is that a hobby is something you do because the activity adds value to your life and makes it better.
Through your hobbies you make a choice about how you want to spend your free time. They are active pursuits that involve doing something in the world.
Our hobbies afford us opportunities to grow and develop our minds and bodies. More importantly, through hobbies we can explore interests, skills, and perspectives that we are otherwise unable to.
Study after study has shown the benefits of hobbies. They improve our mental and physical health, are an excellent creative outlet and means of self-expression, and they make us better problem-solvers.
(See my related article, Understanding Our Relationship to Suffering)
One study that looked specifically at scientists, for example, found that individuals who had nonwork-related hobbies performed better on the job (or as scientists).
Hobbies made it easier for them to think outside the box and find innovative solutions to problems.
“A regular pastime can ease mental stress, improve work–life balance and help scientists to reach innovative solutions in their work.”
Making time to pursue an active hobby is an excellent way to improve your life. Don’t accept the illusion of living a fulfilling life when you can choose to live a fulfilling life: Make time for yourself, explore your interests, exercise your creativity, and do something simply because you enjoy it.
What are your hobbies?
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