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The Vale and the Gorge

more percent efficient

Momentum and Habit stand together, shields locked, in any battle formation. Habit reinforces Momentum when he seems about to fail, and Momentum charges forward to slay the enemy. As in battle, there is advance and retreat. The goal in this crusade is simple: constant advance in the right direction. Momentum is the key to positive action, building on past successes to spur you onward. 

“The harder you work, the more confident you become in yourself,” said Brandon Carter to Snapchat during his daily run through pre-dawn New York City, eyes staring intensely into the camera, “Truth is, if you haven’t worked hard you don’t even deserve to be confident.” It’s a simple process, habits of hard work becoming confidence and momentum. What makes these two inseparable, and how do we use them to bolster one another?

Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ aquatics instructor, described the athlete’s precise raceday ritual to Charles Duhigg for Duhigg’s book, "The Power of Habit." Phelps woke at the same time every day, ate the same meal, completed the same warmup and stretching routine, and listened to the same music. Why?

“If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.”

Momentum. The answer is momentum. Victory after victory after victory creates the impetus to steamroll any obstacle. Phelps’ eighteen gold medals are built on the foundational principle of momentum.

In fact, the foundation of momentum has an even deeper support in the bedrock of habit. “It’s more like his habits have taken over,” Bowman told Duhigg. They probably had. Habits have the power to create momentum through small, familiar victories. I wake up before six o'clock every morning to begin a ritual that builds momentum for the day. I meditate, stretch, write, and hit the gym before most people have woken up. It’s a genuine strategy to generate powerful movement in a positive direction.

The weakness of momentum is that it is mechanical. A boulder bounding downhill, once it starts heading one direction it’s not likely to stop. This is true whether the direction is positive or negative. (Let’s call the positive descent the Vale side and the negative descent the Gorge.) That’s why waking up in a poor mental or emotional state can be the death knell for a productive day. Every night when you sleep, your boulder gets reset to the top of the mountain. (Imagine a little team of Christmas elves heave-hoeing that gigantic rock back up there from wherever it landed last night.) In the morning, your actions and choices determine whether that boulder heads down the right side of the mountain, towards your goals and into the Vale, or down the wrong side, to depression, slothfulness, anger and negativity in the Gorge.

Unfortunately, there are times when it isn’t our actions and choices that determine how our days begin. So what do we do if one of the elves leans casually on the boulder to talk to a cute pixie flying past, and he nudges it just far enough that our day starts a teeny bit off-kilter, nudging us into a morning where we wake up with that dreadful sense of foreboding that a terrible day is nigh? Do we let that misplacement snowball into the kind of day where nothing goes right, our boulder trundles down the wrong side of the mountain, and we just try to make it through until bedtime rolls around again and we can start over? No. Habits have the power to resurrect. Momentum becomes a warrior and Habit his armor. Momentum takes a blow on the battlefield and stumbles back. He teeters on the precipice, about to topple down into the Gorge. Habit can grab his arm and pull him back.

Developing habits is relatively straightforward. For now, without getting into the mechanics, just resolve that the moment you realize you’re in a dark mood, do something about it. Listen to some of your happy music, look up pictures of cute puppies, watch a funny video or make a list ten things for which you’re grateful.

It’s difficult to be positive when you feel like there is only negativity everywhere you look. Believe me, I have plenty of Gorge days. Momentum took a hit straight to the mouth, and, boy, can you feel it. Every emotion is tinged bitter and there is no silver lining to any of the clouds in the sky. Too bad. You just have to settle in and pull out whatever habits you have to fight back. Plug in music or power up YouTube. You’re in this battle for victory, and one blow can’t knock you out of the fight.

Jack Dolinar is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "more percent efficient," runs on alternate Fridays.