The “Critical Point of Change”

Success truly is a habit, not a destination or static state.

I note this because we’re coming up on the New Year and people will invariably think that if they just really want something, that not only can they have it but they can keep it once they have it. This presupposes health and fitness are trinkets, items that once collected are kept in perfect order unless acted on by an outside force.

Here’s the thing: doing “nothing” once achieved *is* the outside force. What maintains health and fitness is not really wanting it, but wanting it just enough to regularly check in on it, in this case that means habits conducive to maintaining your earned health and fitness. What it is not, in spite what we might wish, is a “critical point of change,” a threshold that once crossed, changes the state of affairs permanently.

What do I mean? In the book Ubiquity, physicist and science journalist Mark Buchanan introduces the reader to the science of what he calls “historical physics”–the study of systems that are far from equilibrium and, as he puts it poised “on the knife edge of instability”. He describes a much-studied model of such catastrophe-prone systems, a simple sandpile. Build a sandpile by dropping one grain at a time on the now heap of sand grains. It will eventually reach a critical state at which a grain can either make the pile a bit taller or start an avalanche, small or large. Scientists experimenting with real and virtual sandpiles have observed several important regularities:

  1.  The time between avalanches is extremely variable, making it essentially impossible to predict when the next avalanche will occur.
  2.  The size of avalanches is also extremely variable, making it essentially impossible to predict whether the next avalanche will be tiny or huge.
  3.  A big avalanche doesn’t need a big cause; one grain can trigger a sandpile-flattening event.

While biological systems absolutely adhere to the laws of physics, human beings and their behavioral tendencies do not. The idea that, at some point, a switch is flipped and you are on good behavior autopilot is a fallacy. It gets easier, of course, approximating automatic, but if you slack off, backsliding is still very easy. This is why you build an environment that makes that backsliding hard (i.e. no junk food in the pantry) so when our fragile humanity kicks in, we’ve saved ourselves ahead of time.

To put it another way, when asked how long you have to do this, a trainer friend of mine put it succinctly:

Till you die, ma’am.

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