On The Importance of Personal Momentum, and the Danger of Losing It

I certainly do find some irony in the fact that I spent 20 or so minutes before finally starting to write this watching a variety of YouTube videos. There wasn’t any research going on, I just get easily distracted, and I also am struggling with a loss of personal momentum.

            The idea of personal momentum is something that most people have thought of in one way or another, that as you become less productive it becomes much more difficult to get back into a productive state. I’ve reached points in my life of intense personal momentum, however. There is a certain level of progress that one reaches where it almost seems like they are no longer the driving force behind their work. A few years ago, I was in very good physical shape. While I had the desire to become an even stronger and better-looking version of myself, the main thing that drove me back to the gym every day was how I’d feel if I didn’t get to go. I had massive amounts of energy, but if I didn’t expend that energy, I felt very uncomfortable.

            A similar thing happened during a 5 or so week period wherein I was practicing AT LEAST 8 hours every day. I say “at least” because I really don’t even know how much I was practicing during that time, as I was practicing nearly every waking moment. That experience might actually go beyond the range of “personal momentum” and enter into complete obsession. Lately, I’ve had problems pulling myself out of bed before 8:30. During that 5-week period, however, I’d be waking up at 3:00 A.M. to start practicing. I had a massive amount of momentum. It was not just strength of will that kept me going. It was like there was an outside force that compelled me at every moment of the day. I even lost considerable weight during this time. The obsession with practicing was, oddly, the only thing that knocked away my obsession with fitness. It overshadowed my desire to eat, as any preparation of food would take away time that I could spend practicing.       

            While terms like “obsession” or talk of being compelled by outside forces were how I expressed these experiences, I’ve come to really appreciate the term “personal momentum.” It was a term I first heard used by Stefan Molyneux, a philosopher and social commentator who runs a very successful YouTube channel. I don’t know if there is another man on that platform who more is capable than Stefan Molyneux in productive output, both in quantity and quality. Others, as well, consistently put out fantastic content, of whom you often hear of working 16-hour days. As an artist and a creative person, I long for that level of motivation. I envy the deep-seated push that makes creative work the most enjoyable, and the most tiring. Having experienced it before and having now lost it to a certain degree, I crave it more and more.

            The tough part about creative output is its nature toward exponential growth, both on the incline and decline. The more you push yourself, the easier it is to create. The less you push yourself, the difficulty of getting off your ass multiplies. Inevitably, you will at some point find yourself stuck in the middle of these two scenarios, only able to make the turn in the right direction through the weakest of human traits: will-power. Will-power often seems so strong in our abstract fantasies, and even more often finds its strength only in fantasy. Right before anyone enters any grand attempt at self-improvement, whether it be weight loss, exercise, working harder, or any self-improvement in general, they gleefully imagine how strong their own will will be. This all-powerful image of themselves can deflect temptations and obstacles at every turn with the patience of Job and the resilience of the Buddha. But, what inevitably happens but a few moments after they begin on this venture but abject failure? Every known excuse (and some previously heretofore unthought of) comes in like a deluge, begging you not to upset the status quo. But you must upset the status quo, even the littlest bit. In all likelihood, the littlest bit is all your pathetic will-power can muster. This is why I don’t get upset with people who try and try to crack some bad habit. They may just have to make little cracks in it over time before they gain the necessary momentum to really achieve their goals. That being said, all attempts must come from a place of true desire for achievement, not just shallow, wishful thinking.

            I’m always reminded of a very interesting story about anti-smoking campaigns. A survey study was done on the effectiveness of two different campaigns. One campaign focused on being nonjudgmental and giving helpful options to prospective quitters. The other used scare tactics like blackened lungs and cancer statistics. Which do you think was most effective? Most people, upon hearing this, answer that the first, more helpful and less judgmental campaign was the most effective. This is incorrect. That campaign was nearly useless. The one that used scare tactics was, by far, the most useful for helping people quit, because it is not the “how” that matters, but the “why.”

            Most people, if they are truly honest with themselves, know exactly what it is they need to do, and how to do it. But so often they do what affects them negatively or what distracts them from what they should do. When I say “most people” I of course mean all of us. This is such a universal that it’s in the Bible: For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. (Rom 7:15) Why is this? Because we haven’t been made to want to do what it is we know we need to do. Think about the smoking campaigns: the reason that the harsher campaign worked is because, through fear, it made the smokers want to quit. The how was incidental. If you truly want to accomplish something, you will figure out the how.

            So, swinging back to personal momentum, the idea is to get oneself into the mode where you’ve committed to wanting the good that you should do, resulting in pleasure coming from one’s productivity. A lack of personal momentum is often mired in immediate pleasures, pleasure found in quick, dopaminergic bursts. This isn’t necessarily the now nearly memetic vices of sex, drugs, alcohol, and pornography, but more often includes little distractions. Distractions like watching 20 minutes of “educational” YouTube videos when you are supposed to be writing a blog post.

            How does one gain this momentum in their life? It seems to me that it is only through desire and force of will, pushing bit by bit until the boulder gets to the top of the hill, where you can finally let it roll down. It’s where you have a clear idea of what you need to accomplish, and a full desire to accomplish it, which nearly shoves you out of bed in the morning to do so. It’s where you can see the evidence of your own progress, and so it drives you to make even more and more. Life becomes a challenge of seeing how much immediate pleasure you can deny yourself in order to gain something of greater and lasting value. That is personal momentum. I pray we all can achieve it.