Novices to finance are always amazed at how powerful compound interest is. Once they become aware, it becomes much easier to explain why they should pay off high interest loans as quickly as possible, and not keep too much cash lying around that isn’t gathering interest.

But people are always slow / hesitant to apply the same knowledge to other aspects of their lives. Regular, steady contributions (even mediocre ones) will outgrow and crush the sprinters. The tortoise always beats the hare.

When I first started going to the gym it was a huge struggle. I set myself a goal, which perhaps could help you too - go to the gym, even if it’s only for 15 minutes, and even if you just play pool in the lounge and read your phone, every day. What you’ll find, as I did, is that after a few days of this you’ll say to yourself “well maybe I can do just one exercise, maybe I’ll play some basketball”. A week later, you might start fiddling around on one of the machines. A week later, free weights. You’ll get fitter and fitter, and if you look at the amount of exercise, either by intensity or by length of workout, it’ll start to look exponential.

Eventually, of course, it’ll level off. None of us are super saiyans. What really happens is that your initial discipline will rapidly get you to a new minimum fitness level which you can maintain or increase over time, and now going to the gym is habitual, rather than motivation based. The curve looks like this:

S curve
S curve

This curve happens everywhere in biology - and biologists talk about things that “shift the curve left” (which speeds up the exponential phase) or “shift the curve right” (which makes it longer). Your effort, on the other hand, looks like this:

Negative saturation curve
Negative saturation curve

The second curve isn’t a surprise either - for instance, the first curve can represent hemoglobin - oxygen binding, and the second curve represents how much oxygen is present in substrate.

I don’t think this is an accident. When we descibe “habit” we’re only describing the mental infrastructure that guides our actions as humans. You wake up in the morning, and if you eat breakfast every day, you begin to reinforce neural pathways that are involved in that: your hypothalamus and stomach secretes hormones related to digestion and hunger, your brain pushes the parasympathetic nervous pathways that allow you to digest the food, etc. If you don’t eat breakfast, those pathways begin to wither - or more precisely, activating them is on the exponential part of the S curve: you have to force yourself to eat, because you aren’t hungry.

We probably already know this subliminally - if you play video games every day, it doesn’t take an extraordinary amount of effort to play them today. But if you never play them, you’ll rarely want to, even if you could. The more sugar you eat, the more you crave sugar. Regular wine drinkers find cracking the next bottle easier. Etc. Same with chess or exercise or programming or…writing.

I have no immediate solution if you can’t get yourself to do the first 15 minutes, though. Certainly I’ve wanted to start a blog for years, and never executed, and many of the side projects I’m pursuing now are ideas that have been bouncing around my head since my old college days. No time like the present, I guess.

The one thing I will say, which is reinforced in the math, is that the first day is always the hardest, and then the second day is the second hardest…until the curve flips. When it does, you’ll find it’s actually harder not to do the thing than it is to do it - your neurons don’t seem to distinguish between action and inaction. That means starting bad habits is just as hard as ending them. That knowledge is comforting, somehow.