Inertia can keep us from making needed changes in our life or work. Because of inertia, we can stick with a sub-optimal path, often because it feels safer and easier.
According to Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, something at rest will remain at rest, and something in motion will remain in motion, unless it’s acted upon by an external force. It’s often called “the law of inertia.”
Think of the amount of fuel and energy it takes for a rocket to blast off. Next, think of a loaded freight train barreling down the tracks and how much energy it will take to stop it.
Inertia in Our Lives
We can think of inertia not only in terms of physics but also in terms of inertia in our life and work—in terms of resistance to changes.
Dr. Jim Taylor, a performance psychologist, points to what he calls the “law of human inertia,” noting that we tend to remain on the course of our current life trajectory unless a greater force enters the picture—either externally or internally. He notes that our current life trajectory is highly resistant to change because of all the forces that propel it. He writes, “A little effort here or there is unlikely to change the direction of our lives because it is already being driven by potent forces.” Forces that help keep us on the same trajectory include our identity, the people around us, and our daily habits and routines.
Dr. Taylor notes that, while we often talk about feeling stuck when we’re dissatisfied with our lives, more often the problem is that we have so many things going on in our lives that small efforts here and there are unlikely to initiate the desired changes. If we want to redirect the forces that are propelling us on our current trajectory, we must summon even greater force to make that happen—and point them in a clear direction.
He also notes that, in many cases, we’re still on the same trajectory that began when we were much younger, still repeating some of the same patterns and falling into some of the same traps (e.g., trying to be perfect or please others, comparing ourselves to others, etc.).
It’s worth questioning whether we want to remain on our current path. If we’re stuck in a job we don’t like, or that feels like a major compromise, we should ask whether we’re hampered down with inertia. Did we choose our path intentionally and for good reasons that still stand up to scrutiny, or are we on it by default?
Changing the course of our life and work can require much from us: taking stock, getting clarity on what we want and the changes needed to get there, and then taking action.
“Nothing happens until something moves.”
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We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
The Implications of Inertia
Years ago, a family friend, J.D., had just graduated from a prestigious university and was thinking about a career in business. He went to my father for advice since Dad was in the middle of a long and distinguished business career.
J.D. didn’t know what area of business to focus on, so Dad walked him through the various functions of business, from sales, marketing, and human resources to finance, manufacturing, and engineering. After hearing about all the options, J.D. realized something troubling: none of them appealed to him.
At this point, his Mom jumped in and asked J.D. what did appeal to him. After a long pause, he quietly responded that he’d like to go to medical school and become a doctor, but he knew that was impossible because he hadn’t taken the necessary prerequisites. He couldn’t go back and take them because of the time and expense.
Of course, that made total sense. The cost would be great, and the time, effort, and money already invested felt enormous.
But compared to what? Given his expectations and what all his classmates were doing (and perhaps the fear of falling behind), the idea of going backward instead of forward seemed foolish and naive.
But how might the calculus change if he broadened the aperture to the sweep of his life and career? If J.D. were to work 40 hours a week for, say, 45 years, he’d end up working for about 90,000 hours over the course of his career
How does this decision look in that larger context? What would it be worth to work for 90,000 hours doing something that tugged at his heart instead of something that didn’t?
His Mom didn’t miss a beat. She said he should go back to school if that’s what he really wanted to do. And so he did.
Thus began his remarkable journey as a doctor. He’s now medical director of the pediatric cardiac transplant program at a nationally ranked children’s hospital, and he still loves what he does.
Inertia in Companies
Of course, inertia isn’t just a problem for people. It can also plague companies. Think of all the companies that struggled or even cratered because they stuck with their existing strategy and business model when the market around them was changing.
I call it the “disruption graveyard,” and it’s not only huge but still growing.
Leadership Derailers Assessment
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The Problem with Inertia
The inertia trap can lead to painful consequences. For individuals, it can lead to:
- settling for “good enough” instead of what we really want
- feeling dissatisfied with our life or work
- playing small even though we know something bigger is possible for us
- preventing us from trying new things and taking risks
- feeling pangs of regret when we look back
“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful
as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”
For organizations, it can lead to lower revenues and profits, a precarious competitive position, or even insolvency.
Why Overcoming Inertia Is So Hard
Changing our path is hard because it disrupts our mental equilibrium. We’re wired to prefer order and familiarity—and to fear the unknown. We know that change can be slow and hard—and sometimes grueling and brutal. It can bring losses, even big ones.
Here are many of the reasons why overcoming inertia is so hard:
When thinking about making some changes, our “loss aversion” kicks in.
For most people, the pain of losing something is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining something equivalent, according to researchers. As a result, most people are more motivated to avoid losses than go for gains.
Many of us tend to overthink things and fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis.”
It’s hard to get moving in a new direction when we’re deep in all the mental weeds of scenarios and suppositions.
“Successful people start before they’re ready.”
-James Clear, author
It takes a great deal of energy to go from standing still to moving.
This is as true in our lives and careers as it is in physics. Getting started—or re-started—is often the hardest part. If we’ve taken time off due to parental leave or a sabbatical, or to raise a family, those transitions can be wonderful, if slightly unnerving sometimes. We should truly make the most out of them and appreciate them. But they can also make it much harder to start up again, both for us and for people considering whether to hire us. It’s the heaviness of restarting.
We feel like we’re so far along our current path that it would be foolish to make a change now.
Researchers point to the “sunk cost fallacy” as a factor that keeps us on our current path. In this mode, we’re reluctant to abandon a course of action because we’ve invested heavily in it (e.g., with time, money, or effort), instead of asking whether it really makes sense to continue with it, looking at it objectively today. A related point: many of us are susceptible to “status quo bias,” according to researchers—a preference for maintaining the current state of affairs (and resisting actions that will change it).
“Everything seems to conspire to keep us where we are….
Life seems more comfortable in known, familiar territory.”
-Bob Buford, Half Time
We have a hard time deciding what to do next, sometimes aggravated by “choice overload.”
Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the “paradox of choice.” He argues that having many choices leads to anxiety and “analysis paralysis,” in which we become frozen in undecidedness. We fear making the wrong choice. In many cases, though, there’s no way of knowing in advance if choices will be “right” or “wrong,” so the key is using a good decision-making process and then implementing our decisions as best we can and adjusting as we go.
We can be bogged down by fears.
This can be a fear of failure, or of rejection, or of making the wrong decision. It can be a fear of being judged by others. (We suffer cognitive dissonance when there’s a gap between what we want and what those who care about us want for us, often causing us to crumple back to the status quo.) Or it can be a fear of losing something (such as stability, safety, balance, or a relationship with others), or a fear of the unknown, or a fear of commitment.
We may have perfectionist tendencies that hold us back.
With all the messiness of change, our perfectionism won’t let us enter that liminal state where we can look and feel foolish because we don’t yet have our bearings. Such perfectionism is harmful because it prevents us from tolerating the transition periods when we’re in between roles and identities, when things aren’t yet sorted and clear.
We’re trying to do too many things at once.
That causes us to get bogged down, and it makes it very difficult to summon enough focused energy to change our course. If we’re overcommitted and lacking margin in our lives, we won’t have enough time, space, and energy to change our trajectory.
We may be limited by our current relationships.
For example, we may have a spouse or partner who has different values and aspirations. Or perhaps we’re both not summoning effort and creativity to work through differences and find a workable solution.
We may lack the confidence to take on the risks associated with making changes.
Most people view confidence as something innate, but the truth is that, while some people have more of a disposition toward confidence than others, it’s something we can and should build. Confidence gives us conviction that we can succeed.
We may lack clarity about some essential things that could help us overcome our inertia.
Like what? Our purpose in life (our deeper why, our reason for being), our core values (what’s most important to us), and our vision of the good life (a picture of what success looks like for our lives).
We may feel as though it’s too late to make the needed changes.
Like we’ve missed the boat. While this is a very common notion, the truth is that it’s most often flat-out wrong. In most cases, there’s still much more time than we think, and we should be careful not to let excuses and rationalizations prevent us from doing what’s necessary to make improvements.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
What to Do About It
Clearly, overcoming inertia in our life and work can be challenging. Fortunately, there are many things we can do about it that will set us up for success.
- Begin by acknowledging the reality of our current situation with brutal honesty while maintaining high standards for what we accept in our lives.
- Let go of the past and all the things we’re holding on to that are preventing us from moving forward.
- Take full responsibility for our current state.
- Look for the root causes of what’s keeping us stuck. Perhaps we’re afraid of failing or are too caught up in helping others?
- Summon our motivation and courage to try, in part by tapping into any dissatisfaction we may feel about our present state.
- Get clear about what’s most important (our purpose and core values) and what we want and where we want to go (our vision and goals).
“…the first tangible step to change—is knowing what you intend to change into.
Before you can start a healthy change in your life or in the world,
you need to consider what a healthy change even is.”
- Outline concrete steps we can start taking to move us closer to our vision and goals.
- Create margin for the needed changes in life. Without that, the changes will suffocate from lack of oxygen.
- Set a date to decide about our next steps, to infuse our change process with urgency.
- Get some separation from our current network and routines to free up opportunities for new perspectives and change. According to Professor Herminia Ibarra from London Business School, “We are all more malleable when separated from the people and places that trigger old habits and old selves. Change always starts with separation…. maintaining some degree of separation from the network of relationships that defined our former professional lives can be vital to our reinvention.”
- Make sure we don’t have unrealistic expectations for the pace and magnitude of change. (Note the “planning fallacy,” a well-researched phenomenon in which we tend to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task. It can set us up for frustration and perhaps failure, causing us to abandon our change efforts.)
- Start small. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking we have to have everything figured out in advance or that we need to make big changes straightaway. According to the “progress principle” from Dr. Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School, the most important thing we can do to boost our motivation is make progress in meaningful work. The more frequently we do that, the more likely we are to remain productive over time. Everyday progress and small wins can make all the difference in how we feel and perform. What’s more, this leads to what they call a “progress loop” in which our inner experience of motivation drives performance, and that performance further enhances our inner work life.*
- Ask for help, ideally from a friend, mentor, coach, or support group—and surround ourselves with positive and supportive people.
- Maintain healthy habits. Be disciplined when it comes to exercise, nutrition, sleep, and breaks, since our physiology profoundly influences our mental state.
- Adopt the habit of periodically disrupting our own lives and career to avoid falling into the trap of complacency.
- Develop momentum in our preferred direction by aligning an array of forces: our purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, habits, and expectations. Bad habits are a form of friction on our desired life trajectory. Good habits are jet fuel.
“The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements….
Small habits don’t add up. They compound. That’s the power of atomic habits.
Tiny changes. Remarkable results.”
Investor and writer Mark Mulvey notes that start time and frequency are critical factors. He writes:
“The sooner you start the farther you tend to go….
The more often you do something the more you will tend to continue doing it.”
This points to a flipside to the challenge of overcoming inertia: we can also use the law of inertia to our advantage. If we’re able to change our mindset, obtain clarity, and get moving in a different direction, we can develop real momentum, especially via daily practices and disciplined habits. Eventually, the benefits start to accumulate and grow, much like the power of compound interest.
In the end, when it comes to questions about which path we’re on and how to summon the energy required to change it, we need to be brutally honest and play the long game. By taking the long view, we can avoid the cost of regret for not trying.
- “Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire”
- “The Trap of Deferring Dreams and Postponing Happiness”
- “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear”
- “Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?”
- “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented”
- “Are You Trapped by Success?”
- “The Conformity Trap”
- “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work”
- “Do You Have Margin in Your Life?”
- “Choice Overload and Career Transitions”
- Herminia Ibarra, “Working Identity—Nine Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, February 10, 2003
- Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011
- Is inertia keeping you from making needed changes? If so, in what areas?
- Is it time to re-evaluate and start changing your trajectory?
- What’s the cost of not taking action?
Tools for You
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life
- Personal Values Exercise to help you clarify what’s most important to you
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming Inertia
- “Inertia is the force that holds the universe together. Literally. Without it, things would fall apart. It’s also what keeps us locked in destructive habits, and resistant to change.” -Shane Parrish, Farnam Street
- “Humans are creatures of least resistance. We take the road most traveled, or the road best paved. So much of our behavior runs on autopilot.” -Aline Holzwarth, applied behavioral scientist
- “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
- “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” -Will Rogers
- “Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.” -Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
- “The recipe for staying stuck is to try to do too many things at one time.” -Todd Herman
- “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
- “You don’t have to be one of those people that accepts things as they are. Every day, take responsibility for changing them right where you are.” -Cory Booker
- “To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.” -William James
- “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is in your daily routine.” -John Maxwell
- “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese proverb
- “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic
- “Never be passive about your life… ever, ever.” -Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author
- “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” -Epictetus
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* Source: Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011
“Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop.
Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes
in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path.
Small steps lead to big changes, so don’t waste time, energy, and money
on finding the ‘answer’ or the ‘lever’ that, when pushed, will have dramatic effects.
Almost no one gets change right on the first try.”
–Dr. Herminia Ibarra, London Business School
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!