Inertia and When to Break a Habit

On a recent episode of Under the Radar, David Smith said something that hit on an idea I’ve been thinking about recently:

“Inertia is a dangerous thing … It’s hard to start something, and then sometimes it’s easy to just keep going”

Inertia

This notion of inertia applies to many things: projects, hobbies, habits, relationships, et cetera. “Inertia” governs a class of things which share the following characteristics:

  1. They’re hard to start.
  2. Eventually, they become easy to continue in some steady-state.
  3. Sometimes, they become difficult to end.

Personally, I’ve thought about this concept in relation to a long-term inertial habit that I’ve recently broken (intentionally). For the past several years, I’d submitted something to Github every day. After my last semester, I de-prioritized this as a habit1 in favor of other long-term goals.

I’ve found it useful to explicitly make a distinction between habits and goals. They seem often to get muddled together, but upon reflection, they serve different functions and have distinct characteristics.

Goals vs. Habits

Habits are fragile; goals are flexible2. Many habits masquerade as goals. “Run once a day” and “avoid saturated fats” are habits; “become a better runner” and “improve cardiovascular health” are goals.

Upon reflection, one notices that:

Planning for the achievement of abstract goals often results in failure, whereas developing habits can more reliably result in success3 (however defined). So, in this way goals and habits are interdependent: goals without habits are quixotic and likely to fail; habits without a goal lack a purpose and are often vestigial idiosyncrasies.

Personally, I’ve found that habits often outlive their usefulness. In my freshman year of college, I set myself a goal to “write code every day”. Was this a good objective then? Yes. It created a mental incentive to think about programming and do something — though I didn’t know how to do much — every day that expanded my limited set of experience.

Fast forward 3 years. I credit that habit with a lot of my intermediate success. But, does it still create value? Perhaps not. The amount of (personal) development I achieve each day is relatively low from a shallow objective like “code every day” compared to a larger goal of “improve as a developer”. The same could be said for similar habit-goal confusions like “going to the gym X days per week” or “spending X hours studying for an exam”.

In short, do not confuse a habit for the end goal.

When to Break a Habit

We set goals for improvement and use habits to instantiate practice and develop skills. Habits are inertial, and inertia cuts both ways. We benefit from the aspect of inertia that motivates us to do beneficial (though difficult or unpleasant) work. However, unchecked inertia leads to stagnation.

Despite the negative connotations of stagnation, it’s not inherently “bad”. Stagnation can be comfortable. Do you really care that much about running? If your goal is general fitness, it’s OK to be stagnant once you’ve achieved the ability to comfortably run a 5K.

The issue comes when stagnation is manic or occurs when you’ve not yet achieved a goal. In either case, the opportunity cost of continuing the current routine surpasses the cost of breaking existing habits and forming new ones.

If you’ll excuse the use of a linguistic trick, note that we have the notion of “breaking” a habit, but no similar idea of “breaking” a goal. Objectives can be failed, streaks can end, but (unless a goal is time-sensitive) goals are only “unfulfilled” in some abstract way.

Thus, the conscientious breaking a habit can often be more in service of a goal than continuing it mindlessly. “Breaking inertia”, adding stressors to routines by changing our patterns, ends up being more beneficial than continuing a tried-and-true habit.

Conclusions

In summary, one should be careful to disambiguate between habits and goals - the former being a method, the latter being a target. Furthermore, one should be cognizant of when inertial habits have reached stagnation. At that point, an honest evaluation should be made to determine if it makes sense to forgo current habits and form new ones in service of the actual goal.

Breaking habits — even those developed affirmatively in service of a goal — is challenging, but often necessary for continued improvement.


  1. I’d thought to write about this earlier, but I didn’t want to while the upset due to Microsoft buying Github was still ongoing. [return]
  2. Having recently read Antifragile, I believe that habits are fragile (vulnerable to randomness in one’s environment) and well-formed goals are antifragile (gaining from mental stressors and variation that drive personal growth). [return]
  3. This is especially true if one plans habits using the SMART criteria. [return]