Overcoming Static Friction

Let me tell you a story. Our intrepid heroes: Steve and Laura. They’re married in their early 30s, no kids, and settled into a hard-working professional life. But neither is entirely happy; their 9-to-5 life lacks adventure. One weekend, Steve’s buddy Phil invites the two to go camping with him. The following weekend finds the three of them backpacking in a nearby state park.

Steve and Laura are smitten. Steve loves how independent he feels; Laura is enjoying the fresh air outside the suburbs. They see a moose and go swimming under a beautiful waterfall. The hike is exhausting – particularly for two desk jockeys – but they finally arrive at a cute lean-to and get settled in. That evening they make s’mores and kick back by the fire. Phil tells some great stories and brought some whiskey with him. Everyone has a good time. The next day on the way out Steve can’t stop talking about the experience.

Sitting at her desk on Monday, Laura feels dejected. It’s so dull to be sitting in the office again. The two talk that evening and Steve feels the same way. They daydream of the weekend. Friday evening they go out the mall and pick up some adventurewear from REI.

Six months pass, and they haven’t gone camping again.

What happened? Maybe the cynic in you says that they just wanted an excuse to spend money on appearances. Is that it, or is something else going on?

I think it’s something deeper. When Steve imagines camping, he’s thinking about the great hike and how masculine he felt. Laura thinks about the flickering fire and how wonderful it was to rediscover her muscles.

Neither thinks about all the preparation that went into the hike. Phil was there for most of that. They had to search for decent hikes. They had to pack. They had to wake up before sunrise to drive over to the park. They got lost in the parking lot before they finally found the right blazes on the trees for their trail. Even during the hike, Steve was sometimes uncomfortable. He got some blisters, and Laura scraped her hand on some rocks.

All of these are trivial tasks. Let’s be honest: even the most diligent person will only take an hour to pack his equipment. The other barriers are similarly low. They may be low – but collectively, they’re high enough. They might as well form a barricade across the highway, preventing the couple from reaching the park. As time passes, the effort that went into setting up the hike begins to dominate the mind. In the end, they’ll probably go camping a few more times. And they’ll really, truly love it. But it won’t stick, because they can’t overcome the static friction.

This static friction – the friction of jumping from immobility into action, has a huge impact on whether you do what you love. It builds in your mind until it seems insurmountable. Little tasks take on the aspect of daunting challenges. Meanwhile, the kayaks and surfboards and sailboats and tents gather dust in the garage.

Don’t think this just applies to adventure sports. I love programming. It’s one of only three or four activities where I’ve felt entirely absorbed – so much so that I can forget to eat, and I don’t want to sleep. When I’m working on a problem, I think about it constantly, whether I’m walking to the store or in the shower.

And yet: I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve programmed on my own time in the past year. I assure you that I do enjoy it. It’s just that there’s lots of little barriers. I need to figure out a project to work on, and if it’s something new I’ll need to put in some time to learning it. Most languages require you to install a program in order to do anything. And sometimes those will be out of date, or find something wrong with your machine, and you’ll spend hours trying to debug the most trivial issues, downloading various files and installing them, restarting the computer, and so on. That stuff is not programming, and it’s not enjoyable.

It’s enough to deter me from doing anything. Instead I watch TV, which I don’t particularly enjoy. At least it’s easy.

I don’t have any suggestions, yet. But I think understanding how static friction affects your mind is an important step. And understanding that other people have the same problem, maybe you’ll feel a bit more charitable when you see all the unused things in their garage.

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