Imagine a field of tall grass, untouched, about knee high. To get from one side to the other, you start walking where no one has before and press down the blades of grass with each step, swiping your ankles through the brush between each stride. Walking through the grass just once, you begin to create a beaten path. If you walk through that path again and again, it gradually becomes more beaten, smoother and easier to traverse.

The first cut is the deepest

The first walk across that grass is the most important one. It is the one that begins to cut the new path and alters the landscape more than any of the subsequent walks. Walking through the virgin field from point A to point B just once significantly increases the probability that the next time you cross that field you will choose the same path. And others who see the developing path are more likely to follow it as well.

The first walk is unique because it is potentially the birth of a new habit. The first walk may lead to a beaten path. Beaten paths tend to become habits. Habits define our lifestyle. If you look at how you habitually spend your time, money and energy, you get a pretty good picture of what your lifestyle looks like.

Habit formation

Whether you return to the same beaten path depends in part on what you experienced along the way. If it was immediately gratifying in some way and the possible long term negative consequences seemed too far off to be of concern, you are much more likely to revisit that path. However, if you got sprayed by a skunk or bitten by a snake, you may never go that way again. If your experience was neutral, whether you go back for more may depend on other factors like your level of curiosity, determination or peer pressure.

Please watch your step

As luck would have it, it seems like it’s a lot easier to start a bad habit than a good one. Therefore, before we take the first step into new territory, it’s a good idea to be mindful of what we might be getting ourselves into. A teen who tries the first cigarette is not guaranteed to get addicted to tobacco, but he’s a whole lot more likely to become addicted than if he never took the first drag.

Once we cross a line, it tends to be easier to cross it again. If nothing really bad happened right away, and if it was even partly rewarding, the new behavior can begin to make a home for itself rather easily. If we sense that a certain behavior may compromise our health, integrity, code of ethics or moral standards, it may be better to not take the first step in that direction at all. It’s easier to avoid a bad habit than to stop one.

March onward

Whereas creating new bad habits can be like sliding down a slippery slope, developing new good habits like eating well, exercising or communicating respectfully can be like beating a path through thick brush going uphill. The introverted college student who desperately wants to date may need to work hard to break the ice and start conversations at social gatherings. The problem drinker may need to take a deep breath and swallow her pride in order to cross the threshold of her first AA meeting. But with courage, determination, support and many repetitions, these efforts can lead to beaten paths, habits and healthy lifestyles.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Quicksandala /