When I’m left up to my own devices (like when the wife is out of town or back in my bachelor days), I could go a few days without ever really picking up the house. There are a few things that always grab my attention, like dishes in a sink, but other things I could probably leave indefinitely, like clothes on the floor. I think everyone probably has their own little things like that and we all seem to exist somewhere along the spectrum from super messy to “neat freak”.
Now, while the house is in that messy, ignored state I may not feel like anything is off or really that bad about it. However, when it is actually clean, there is a huge difference in how the space feels and how I feel. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself- when you’re going about your life in a neat and tidy space, your mind feels neat and tidy too. It’s easier to get things done that you want to do and life feels generally less stressful. For some reason though, we tend to get accustomed to a messy environment and not notice the subtle negative influence that it exerts. (It seems the same with diet too: if you’re eating junk all the time you may not even notice how sub-optimal you feel until you clean it up and get real food in your body and then “Oh my god, I feel amazing!”)
So, obviously, if I were an objective and logical robot, I’d realize that all of my spaces should be kept clean and organized at all times and I would immediately put clothes away instead of letting them hang out in the corner of the floor. I mean, I know it’s going to be better that way, and yet somehow I fool myself into thinking that this one little item, this one little mess, doesn’t really matter too much. Then the next item, the next small mess, gets left out because “Meh, it’s already not clean”. Before I know it, the whole place is a mess. At that point, it becomes even easier to accept the status quo and just assume that I’ll do a big clean-up the next time I’ve got time for it. Sound familiar? By ignoring the quick and easy fixes that would maintain the environment I want, I get on this slippery slope until I’m at a point where I decide the only solution is a big, exhausting effort to fix the problem. Once it’s reached that level, it’s going to take a lot of mental effort to even begin the process and you may find yourself stuck in the bad environment for way longer than necessary.
This is what I’d call a negative snowball effect and there are corollaries to the messiness example throughout our lives.
- You skip the gym one day because you don’t feel like it and suddenly weeks have gone by and you haven’t exercised at all…
- You splurge on one expensive item you don’t need and suddenly you’ve got Amazon packages showing up daily…
- You sit down to watch one show on Netflix and before you know it the sun has set and you’ve spent the whole day binge watching multiple seasons…
The list can go on and on. Once we start building momentum in a negative direction, it’s super easy to keep heading that way because at that point it takes a strong exertion of willpower to make a change.
Fortunately, the opposite is also totally true. We can create positive snowball effects in our lives. I’m sure you’ve felt this: once you get in the habit of something beneficial, it becomes so much easier to maintain.
Let’s take the example of exercise again-
The first time you try to wake up at 6 am and go for a run (especially if you’re a night owl like me) you might find it miserable and have to force yourself through every step. However, for people that run every morning at 6 am, it’s just their normal behavior and it takes almost no effort to get up the next day and do it again. It’s just what they do. These people don’t have some magical reserve of willpower that the rest of us lack, they’ve just made it a normal part of their routine and can easily ride the momentum that they’ve built up over time.
So, how do you get from that initial painful start to the easy coasting on momentum? This is where the snowball comes into play. When the house is a mess and I know it’s going to take a ton of effort to get back to how I want it, I don’t even think about the big picture. Instead, I take the smallest, easiest task I can think of and accomplish that. Then, maybe while I’m up, I’ll think “oh well let me just take care of this other small thing…”
You see where I’m going here right?
Each small accomplishment takes almost no effort, but because I got started and because each completed task is a little jolt of satisfaction to the brain, it’s almost inevitable that I just keep going. I knock out one small thing after another until I’m tackling the bigger tasks because “Why not? I’ve come this far” and before I know it I’ve knocked out the whole big project and am feeling great about how productive I’ve been with my day.
The real crazy thing though, is that the snowballing of these accomplishments isn’t siloed to just related tasks. There have been many times where picking up some things, or vacuuming the floor, has led to me getting to that workout I wanted to do, which leads to studying that topic I needed to, and on and on. The simple act of accomplishing small tasks builds the momentum that’s needed to keep going and willpower is almost totally removed from the equation. It just feels good to knock out the small wins and your brain wants to keep that good feeling going.
So the goal here is to understand the weird ways our brains work and how much we can be influenced by momentum in the various facets of our lives. Once you recognize the pattern, you can “hack” it (I have a love/hate relationship with that word, but let’s go with it) and make the momentum work for you.
This also applies outside of the realm of accomplishing tasks. When you start to build up a series of small wins, you gain more faith and confidence in yourself and your abilities and this spills over into all sorts of areas of your life. Committing to the completion of an objective, no matter how small, teaches your brain that you are someone who achieves what they set out to do and it also takes away the fear of failure.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up– While the cleaning example is just one small case that I think illustrates the snowball effect well, I also truly believe that it makes a difference in our lives. When the environment around you is neat and orderly it has a direct effect on your mental state, making you feel less anxious and more content. This is a book that’s really gone viral in the last few years about a different approach to tidying your home and getting rid of belongings that don’t bring you joy. It may seem a bit odd at first, but I swear, it’s good stuff!
The Power of Habit– A fantastic book that looks into some of the fascinating ways that habits work in our brains and how they shape our lives. It’s got great insights for breaking bad habits, forming good ones, and generally taking advantage of the unique ways our brains work, rather than being ruled by fairly unconscious behaviors. Check it out.
- Keep negative momentum from building– It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’ll just lie down on the couch for one episode or we’ll just leave this one dish in the sink and clean it later. Don’t fool yourself! Think about how many times in the past that justification has been a lie and refuse to fall for it again. It’s easier to avoid the one bad behavior up front than to correct the effects later once momentum has built.
- Build positive momentum to tackle difficult projects– The next time you have a To-Do list with items that you find yourself struggling to tackle, try starting with the smallest, easiest accomplishments you can complete, even if they’re completely unrelated. Try to build consistent progress by tackling each slightly more complex/difficult item sequentially. By the time you’ve completed a few small tasks, you’ll likely feel empowered and motivated to keep knocking things out and will have a much easier time completing the bigger and harder tasks.
- Build confidence in yourself through small wins– Let’s say someone has struggled with shyness and wants to improve their social skills. Starting with something simple like greeting 5 strangers on the street each day can be an easy way to build momentum with minimal effort and build confidence that ultimately leads to lasting change. Corollaries in other areas could be walking a mile each day to snowball into a fitness habit, cutting out 1 soda/snack per day to snowball into a healthier diet, writing one page a day to snowball into becoming an author. All of these examples involve small wins within the desired discipline, but that needn’t be the case. Small wins in exercising will often drive small wins in eating healthy which could drive small wins in managing your finances and on and on. The more you take concrete, small steps in the direction of your goals, the more you’ll become better at improving in all facets of your life.