Know Thy Habitual Self
Which do you find easier: starting and sticking to a new habit, or breaking an old one?
Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about walking on hills.
There is a concept, in physics, of positive and negative work. To put it simply (which is just exactly how I understand it):
- If a thing is going in a direction, and you are helping it go in that direction, then you are doing positive work. (For example: if you are setting a box on the floor, you are helping gravity to do what it wanted to do anyway. Your acting on the box is positive work.)
- If a thing is going in a direction, and you are directing your energy in keeping it from doing that, then you are doing negative work. (For example: if you are walking downhill, gravity really wants you to do that, but your leg muscles keep you from hurtling down at that speed. Their acting on your body is negative work.)
In the eyes of a P.E. teacher, negative work is a funny thing. On the one hand, you expend the same amount of energy and get less done. Using the same amount of calories, you’ll get farther walking uphill (positive work) then you will walking downhill (negative work). This seems counterintuitive – downhill must be faster, right?? But your body is actually keeping you from going downhill, which means you have all the work of walking PLUS all the work of walking on a hill PLUS all the work of defying gravity. When you think about it like that, no wonder it takes more work!
On the other hand, though, because of that work, you get increased muscle strength. For the same amount of energy, your muscles have had to work that much harder. You are conditioning your body to do more with what you’re giving it. So this kind of work, even though it’s called “negative”, actually has some pretty sweet benefits.
Habits are a lot the same, really.
On the one hand, there is the challenge of starting something new and then the ongoing challenge of sticking with it until it becomes second nature. That is hard! That is taxing! That is an uphill climb! On the other hand, stopping something that feels like a part of you is the challenge of not letting your body tumble down a hill at the rate of gravity. “But I’m used to it!” is the inertia that keeps you going; stopping that energy, or even diverting it to something new, can feel like a real battle. In the end, maybe all it comes down to is knowing where you’re headed – top of the hill or the bottom of it? – and what kind of work you’re ready for. Knowing yourself, in other words.
For myself, I find it much harder to break old habits than to start or even stick with new ones. I’m single-minded; if I’ve decided earnestly that something needs to be added to my life, then I commit to doing the heavy work of adding it in, almost without second thought. Taking something out that’s already got a firm hold, however…that’s a whole different story. I’ve tried tricking myself into it – “I’m not stopping an old habit, I’m starting the new habit of not doing that any more!” – but somehow my mind doesn’t quite buy into that (that single-mindedness again!). I have to content myself with finding a balance between quitting, falling off the wagon, and climbing back on again.
What about you? Do you find it easier to start and stick new habits or break existing ones?