Most of the time, our life today is broadly similar to our life yesterday. And our life tomorrow will be broadly similar to our life today. What we do in the morning, where we go, who we talk to, how we take care of ourselves, our thoughts— none of these generally change much on a daily basis.
If our daily life is moving along in a good direction, filled with exercise, healthy food, friends, family, fulfilling work, then that daily momentum is a great thing. The fact that we start the day with a walk, or we end the day with our family, generally contributes to a good life. Even when we run into challenges, setbacks, disappointments, or obstacles (and we inevitably will!), our overall trajectory does not usually change much day-to-day. When we encounter a setback, all the healthy patterns in our life continue to pull us along in a good direction. The analogy I like to think of is a train moving down the tracks— it has so much momentum that most most things it encounters it will simply smash through, and continue on going.
On the other hand, if our daily life is not moving in a good direction, our time is filled with substances that make us unhealthy and unhappy, we isolate, our work is unfulfilling, our diet is lousy, we are decidedly moving in the wrong direction, and our momentum pulls us there too. These habits are also hard to change. When we run into challenges, setbacks, disappointments or obstacles (and we inevitably will!) they tend to exacerbate these unhelpful tendencies, contributing to yet more momentum in the wrong direction. When we sleep poorly to begin with, stress just makes our sleep even worse. When we cope with stress by smoking, our stress compounds. When we do not have strong social connections, and we encounter adversity, we tend to isolate even more.
We will often, at some point, recognize that we are not on the right track, that our momentum is pulling us in the wrong direction. We recognize it, and then seek to change it, and then (often) fail. So we get discouraged, throw up our arms in frustration and a sense of hopelessness, and continue on the wrong path. But why do we fail? Why is it that insight alone does not allow us to change direction?
Returning to the train analogy, it is hard to stop a train in motion, but it is not impossible. A freight train may need a stopping distance of over a mile. Think about that for a moment— a freight train engineer needs to stop the train, pulls the switch, and yet the train does not stop for another mile! So it often is with us. We recognize we are on the wrong path (insight), and pull the brake, and then… we keep heading in the same direction. Instead of recognizing that we are slowing down (that can be difficult to recognize) all we notice is that we are still traveling in the same direction at approximately the same speed. We therefore incorrectly conclude that pulling the break is ineffective. We fail to recognize the stopping distance required. We do not realize that if we keep pulling on the brake, eventually, we will stop— it just takes consistent time and effort.
Going the other way, If we are trying to get a train up to speed, that too takes time. Support we are trying to start an exercise habit, be more social, or eat better. Starting from zero, we know we want to be traveling a certain speed, so we hit the throttle… and very little happens. The first movement of the train is so slow, people can walk faster. Our inertia prevents us from moving fast to start. Despite the fact that the engine is working incredibly hard, the engine’s output is tremendous, the actual speed is slow…at first. Discouragingly slow. So slow that we give up. However, if we keep the throttle up, if we keep putting energy into the system, the speed starts to increase, and then increase again. While it may take a while to get up to speed, before long, we develop tremendous momentum that is difficult to stop.
Fundamental change in our lives does not usually happen quickly. Especially at the beginning, change can be imperceptibly slow. The more momentum is pushing us in one direction (or the more inertia is holding us in place), the more energy it takes to overcome that. And because change is slow, sometimes barely perceptible (because yesterday looks like today looks like tomorrow), we do not realize anything is changing and therefore conclude nothing is changing. We notice the tremendous energy we are expending, but do not see the change in outcome. We forget about the effect of momentum.
Momentum can be either an ally or an obstacle. If our momentum is taking us in the wrong direction, it takes a lot of effort to change course. If we are stuck, inertia is hard to overcome. but if our momentum is taking us where we want to go, then it carries us through the difficulties and the obstacles that arise. Momentum tends to compound— the more we do things that make us healthy and happy, the more we want to do the things that make us healthy and happy.
In which direction is your momentum carrying you? How do you make sure that your momentum is compounding in the right direction?