Momentum measures how hard it is to stop something once it is in motion. The metaphor of momentum is used (and abused!) everywhere, from sports and entrepreneurship to habit formation and relationships. Momentum has gone from a descriptive physical quantity to a pervasive mental model we use to conceptualize ourselves in the world.

I’ve always had a toxic relationship with momentum. Momentum can work for you as much as it can against you. To quote a Nike commercial that used to be my alarm clock at a particularly “grindset” moment in my past life as an athlete, “momentum is a cruel mistress. It will turn on you in a dime.”

When you’ve got “momentum,” you feel invincible. The “weight” of the previous productive days or previous workouts helps “push” you through the one in front of you. The feeling of momentum often comes with improvement. Don’t break the streak is a powerful motivator. When you’ve got it, it feels great. At one point, I used to equate momentum with success.

The other side, however, is equally cruel. Because eventually, life happens. A family trip “gets in the way” of your workout program. You’ve had a massive cheat meal on a night out with friends. You’ve lost “momentum.” All the “weight” you once had working for you is now gone. You’ve lost something that isn’t tangible but feels very real. This feeling has often led me into a destructive, unproductive spiral. I know I’m not the only one who feels the effect of this metaphor.

“Momentum” evokes the image of a rock rolling down the mountain. It requires immense effort to start. As the rock accelerates down the mountain, you better get out of the way. Momentum is a vector, meaning it has a magnitude and direction. It is always “going” somewhere.

Now, metaphors are never perfect. But I’ve got a better one. Rhythm.

Everyone needs to find their own, and this can change with time. Losing your rhythm is quite different from losing your momentum. As an overly enthusiastic beginner modern dancer, I know you can recover it as quickly as you lost it. The best way to do that is the get back to the present moment. Open yourself up, get out of your head about it, and let the music wash over you.

Once you’ve found a rhythm, it becomes easier to stay in it. So in this way, it captures the same phenomena of “weight” that pushes forward, but unlike momentum (which goes to 0 the moment you stop), rhythm has a funny way of getting into your bones. At some point, it becomes who you are. Yet it remains intensely flexible. How delightful to remind yourself that you can change instantly. There are some incredible implications for the Buddhist ideas of non-self.

The metaphor of “rhythm” evokes the image of dance and play. This brings me to my favorite part about this metaphor. Rhythm makes space for others. The right partner brings another “rhythm” to your life. One that changes yours enough but lets you keep dancing. When your rhythms sync up, they interact constructively. You can do things together that you couldn’t without them. Unlike the solitary rock tumbling down the mountain, your social relations are not “in your way,” but the right ones expand the realm of possibility. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I want friends and a partner with whom I can dance: where our individual rhythm mutually influences each other, occasionally syncing, leading to those emotions, feelings of well-being, and experiences you can only have from relaxing the boundaries of the self and giving yourself to something bigger than just you.

“Rhythm” isn’t directional. You don’t have to be going somewhere. Finding a rhythm can help you get to where you want to go (think rowing/military marching), but a deeper intention about how you are in the world. Unlike the strict directionality of momentum that necessitates a clear goal, rhythm can just as much be a feel. Interestingly it surmounts the distinction between what you are and where you are going (what Simone De Beauvoir discusses in her incredible Ethics of Ambiguity calls facticity and transcendence). Rhythm is a concept for self-understanding, capturing, in a moment, both who you are and past (facts) and where you are going/what you could be.

Finally, the metaphor captures the dynamism of being. Rather than conceptualizing ourselves as static entities with singular directions (think: rock with momentum), rhythm is a metaphor that celebrates our constant movement. To live is to be moved. Moved by the people, landscapes, art, and nature, and in turn, to influence the people and situations that bring joy into our lives.

So when I next feel that tailwind of compounded consistency, instead of saying I’ve “got momentum,” I will say, “I’ve found a rhythm.”

Definition - Momentum

/mə(ʊ)ˈmɛntəm/ noun: momentum; plural noun: momenta

  1. PHYSICS. the quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity.
  2. the impetus gained by a moving object. “the vehicle gained momentum as the road dipped” — Oxford Language