Persistence: the key to successfully changing any habit

Breaking old habits is difficult because we’re in the grip of inertia and lack persistence

Wooden mannequin lying on the sofa

Most of us were introduced to the term “inertia” in school when we learned Newton’s first law of motion in our physics class. We understood that inertia referred to the tendency of a physical object to resist any change to its state of rest or uniform motion. But inertia is not just a concept for physicists. Each of us faces inertia in our own lives.

Consider the trend of making New Year resolutions, which are broken within a few days of making them. Now, metaphysics tells you that just thinking in the right direction and opening yourself up to possibilities will allow the universe to provide you with what you need to realise your dream. What it doesn’t tell you is that while the universe is ready to provide, each of us is sitting in our cage of inertia, which makes us resist any change, however positive. You make a diet plan, an exercise plan, a plan to stop smoking, or a plan to learn a new skill. But, as soon as the initial enthusiasm wears out, you find yourself slipping back to the old, established ways. One extra helping today after being good for a month, one morning of sleeping in instead of going for a run, just one cigarette to take the edge off… the first excuse is always justified. And before you know it, you are back to your old ways, with a little more guilt and a promise to try better next year.

We are, in fact, addicted to inertia. Resistance to change is not a new concept. All teachers tell you that it’s the first step that is the most difficult. But guess what! The second, third and fourth steps are equally difficult. Once the novelty of a new plan wears out, inertia takes over and your plans grind to a halt. This is the moment of truth where you either decide to re-motivate yourself or let it slide away.

Give your inertia a form; picture it as an opposing entity that is stopping you from doing what you want

Breaking the addiction

Just like any other unwanted habit, addiction to inertia can also be broken. Here are some tips to help you win the fight.

1. Acknowledge the addiction

“I’m too stressed”, “There isn’t enough time”, “My head hurts”—the first time and every subsequent time that you make excuses, ask yourself, “Is it inertia?” Sometimes the reasons may be genuine. But most times, all you need to do is name the problem. Keep asking the question why? If your answer ultimately comes down to inertia, you know where the problem lies. Give your inertia a form; picture it as an opposing entity that is stopping you from doing what you want. Have you noticed how in sports, especially body contact sports, the opponents always acknowledge each other first? This is no different.

2. Absorb denial and blame

Denial and blame are frontline weapons of resistance. I like to picture them as boxing gloves on my opponent. “Just one more won’t hurt”, “He offered me a smoke”, “My run buddy didn’t wake me up on time”—these thoughts can pummel you relentlessly. The mental workout can wear you down till you feel the need for the comfort and turn to the very habit you are trying to break. Knowing how to take a punch can mean the difference between winning and losing. So “roll with the punches”, absorb the thoughts and let them flow into you. And then, let them go.

You might have lost a battle, but you will not lose the war—not until you give up on yourself

3. Go back to your why

This is the moment when you can either decide to go on fighting or give up; it is the peak of the climb. If you can crest this, you will win the fight. Remind yourself why you are doing this. Ask yourself what you would gain from this change. Face the alternative of what you would lose if you don’t change. Return to square one and repeat everything that motivated you to take up this change in the first place. Visualise the future, ask your supporters for help, stand tall on your convictions. Take that first step, again and again.

4. Celebrate your successes, accept your losses

If you succeeded, you beat inertia! This is a big deal. There is no bigger opponent to change. Each win provides the energy for more wins and tide you over your losses. If you lost, try again. So what if you lost this time? You gained more information about yourself and your opponent. Knowledge is power and persistence is the foundation of sustained change. You might have lost a battle, but you will not lose the war—not until you give up on yourself.

Persistence is the key

Inertia is a tough opponent, and a very patient one. It will look for opportunities to strike again and again. It will not be one big fight which will decide everything. It will be a series of small skirmishes that will keep hitting you when you are at your lowest. But just as resistance can wear you down, you too can wear it down by persisting. Over time, as its hold weakens, you will find yourself less and less in need of external motivation, because you would be now habituated to your new lifestyle. And one day, what was once a change will become a new and positive way of life.

This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing

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