A few weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of “DarrenDaily”, the daily podcast of motivational speaker & coach Darren Hardy, and he relayed the story of a student & master walking through a forest. The master directed the student to destroy a small shoot starting to appear through the undergrowth. The student did as they were told and easily ripped the shoot from the ground. A short time later, they came across a sapling as tall as the student. Again, the master directed the student to destroy the sapling. With some effort, the student proceeded to break the sapling down and eventually rip the roots from the ground. Finally, they came across a majestic old oak tree soaring above the forest canopy. The master looked at the student and told them to destroy the tree. Undeterred by the order, the student with incredible effort started their process. Needless to say that it took a huge amount of effort and time to tackle the tree.
So, on first hearing this story it took me some time to get past the idea of wilfully destroying things for no apparent reason other than to teach a lesson. Once I put that aside, I understood the point of the story – that it is much easier to stop a bad behaviour in its tracks when it hasn’t taken hold of you and already become a habit.
Recognizing behaviour for what it is and what its net effect will be can be challenging, but that’s where mindfulness and reflection come into play. Really understanding your choices and your eventual decisions to act on those choices require an objective & clear mind, and the motivation to want to learn & grow.
The metaphor of the large oak tree representing a deeply set bad habit made me think about other characteristics of these habits, in particular, the perceived “mass” or “gravity” they can take on in our lives. If you recall parts of your high school physics classes, remember Newton’s laws regarding mass. One law states that an object will either stay at rest or continue at a constant velocity (that is, speed & direction) until acted upon by a different force. Another law states that when one body exerts a force on another body, the second body exerts an equally strong force in the opposite direction on the first body.
Newton also had another law about gravitational forces, and we have updated interpretations from Einstein on how gravity works. For the purpose of this article, it’s sufficient to know that objects will attract other objects based on their mass. The more massive something is, the easier it will attract other objects.
The story about the student & the master illustrate the idea how massive objects are hard to move or change, just like bad habits. You can only change a behaviour by introducing another behaviour to counter it. I’ve come to realize that bad habits can also attract other bad habits. You can help prevent this, though, by having strong good habits that can likewise attract other good habits. What do I mean by this? Well (and not to judge here since I’ve done these things too!), the time that I sit on the couch wanting to watch Netflix instead of working on an assignment or project, and then I start to munch on some salty snacks at the same time is a perfect example.
Instead, if I choose to turn off the TV and focus on my other tasks, I would likely not be snacking on something unhealthy and would get through a large portion of those tasks. Feeling good about accomplishing something, I would then focus on something else to continue my success streak.
At work, If I focus on taking on my challenging tasks early in the day instead of being distracted by “busy” tasks, I will then to look for the next “big” thing to take on once I’ve completed these difficult things, knowing that I was able to persevere. That will give my day a positive rhythm that I will want to continue feeling.
It’s easy to visualize how a strong bad habit will seemingly “fight” you in order to stay in place. It doesn’t want to be moved at all!
You can probably find examples of good and bad habits in your work & personal lives. What helps me now is recognizing those habits for what they are, and then trying to emphasize the good habits and bring them together into larger “collections” or patterns. I’m more likely to eat a healthy meal after a good workout and then aim to get a good night’s sleep. Even if I’m out socializing with friends and may drink a little more than usual, I’ll counter that with some of my good habits to keep myself on track. I find now that I have more “massive” good habits, like my exercise, mindfulness & healthy eating that make it easier to attract more smaller good habits. It also then makes it harder for smaller bad habits to stick around to become massive in their own right.
I’m always amazed at how our minds work and can transform thoughts into things that can seem to have real weight & size. We have the ability to make things huge & insurmountable, or to make them small, manageable and less scary. I hope this article has resonated with you and I think you for the time you’ve taken to read it.