“I just don’t have time.” “I don’t have the motivation after work to do that.” “It saves me time to pick up some drive-through on the way home so I can spend more time with my family.” “I can’t seem to overcome this craving every single night.” “It’s the easiest thing to grab when my blood sugar feels low.” “It’s just how I relieve stress after a long day.” “My knees and back hurt too much to do that.” “Everytime I try to exercise, I hurt too much to do anything for the next 2 days.” “You just don’t understand, there’s no way I can get up and workout before work, because there’s no way I can go to bed before midnight.” “I work 13 hour days, I just don’t have time to workout.”
I hear statements like these every day in my weight loss clinic. Are they legitimate reasons, or are they excuses? Yes, to both questions. Are they a simple sum of my patients’ weaknesses and the reasons for their current predicament? Maybe…but could it be more than just a failure of their willpower? Could there be more to it? Is there another reason besides the strength or weakness of one’s own will power we can identify and exploit? After all, do any of my patients actually prefer their current state of health? If they did, would they have come to see me in the first place? With more professional and personal experience, careful reflection (and self-reflection), and mentorship by those much wiser than me, I have come to believe that, yes, something equally important to willpower needs to be identified and exploited. Willpower is limited for all of us, and blaming it alone is like blaming mom for something dad said. Willpower has a partner, and that partner is “friction.”
Friction is the effort (or amount of energy) required to perform an action. Willpower relies heavily on our energy level – which is limited. Think of it in terms of money (everyone loves money). Willpower is the money in your bank account, which you spend throughout the day to pay the costs of friction in thinking, acting, and interacting with others. Each night, sleep refills our bank account to an extent. There are many other things that refill our account and increase our baseline amount of willpower, but I will save those for another post. This knowledge allows us to start “budgeting” our willpower, “reducing costs” of desired actions, and making undesired actions “more expensive.” However, the first (and most important step) is to invest our willpower into analyzing and continually re-analyzing our lives, priorities, and day to day routines that do and do not align with our stated priorities. Once we know what we truly desire in life and have a solid set of priorities, we can then start using the friction principle to aim our lives towards our goals – ensuring our day to day environment and routines align with our priorities.
So, how do we use the friction principle? Start with asking, “What am I doing that I don’t want to be doing, and how can I make it harder to do those things? Conversely, what am I not doing that I want to be doing, and how can I make it easier to do those things?” I’ll use myself to provide some personal examples. It is very easy for me to sedate with alcohol after a long or stressful day. It’s been easy to relieve the stress of being a rural physician with a good glass of whiskey, a beer, or a glass of wine before bed. However, relaxing this way also makes me less productive at home, less interactive with my children, andworsens my sleep which in turn affects the following day. Striving to be a high performer, this does not work for me. It does not align with my goals in life. Therefore, I decided to stop sedating after work, and I started increasing the friction between myself and alcohol by removing all my favorite alcohols out of sight and placing them in tall cabinets with the cabinets closed. Now out of sight and requiring a little extra effort to get a stool and search for my favorite whiskey, I rarely sedate this way on weekdays at all. The effect has extended even beyond my original intent, and weekends now involve less alcohol. However, let’s imagine this was not enough friction to attain the desired change. I could then remove all alcohol from the house, making it even more difficult to drink. Taken to the extreme, physicians can even prescribe a medication that causes alcohol to make you sick, like disulfiram. The negative effects of alcohol while on the medication creates so much friction that many have used it to overcome alcoholism.
We can apply the same principle in reverse to start performing a desired action. Again, I’ll use a personal example. The last two archery hunting seasons, I practiced just enough with my bow to know it was sighted in. However, I am far from proficient with it. I kept telling myself I needed to practice more, but stopping at the archery range just wasn’t worth the extra effort to me in my already busy schedule. Instead of giving up, I first considered whether archery hunting is worth pursuing for me. I decided it is, and I needed to do it responsibly, otherwise, I have no business doing it. Therefore, I had to find a way to make daily practice a habit. James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits (incredible book if you’re looking for suggestions), describes an excellent method for reducing friction in forming new habits – habit stacking. Pair a desired action with an already established habit or routine. This naturally turns the new action into a habit. Every morning, I have a routine that includes Bible reading, prayer, and journaling on my back porch. I set a target 50 yards off my back porch, set my bow by the door to the porch, and aimed to practice for five minutes every day after my morning routine. Now, I shoot 8 to 12 shots before heading to work every day. If I continue this for even 30 weeks out of the year on weekdays (it gets quite cold here, and my routine moves inside on the coldest days), this new routine will equate to 1,200 to 1,800 practice shots before next season, and it requires very little willpower due to its very little friction. I’m now on track to proficiency and hunting responsibly.
By taking time to reflect, analyze, and rearrange my environment, I have effectively applied the friction principle in both directions to further align myself towards my goals. My routines and daily actions better reflect my stated priorities, and I will continue self-reflecting, applying the friction principle, and growing into who God has designed me to be. Additionally, I will use the principle to help patients in my clinic, athletes I coach, and friends and family I love. You, too, can use the friction principle to align your actions and priorities without much additional willpower.