The Law of Inertia

I have been thinking a bit lately about the concept of inertia. “A body at rest tends to stay at rest, while a body in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by another force” or something very close to that. One specific application of this law is that it takes much more force to start something moving, or move it in the opposite direction, than it does to keep it moving the same direction it is already traveling. Of course, the law of inertia speaks to Physics, but it has applications in business and in life.

Recently I’ve observed this phenomenon specifically with New Years resolutions. I know a great deal has already been said about New Year’s resolutions, everything there is to say, one might think. It’s an arbitrary day, just like any other. Everyone breaks their resolutions within the first month, and often end up worse than they started because they’re depressed about their failures. Peoples’ resolutions are shallow and selfish. You get the idea. But you know what? I’m going to take a crack at it anyway.

I really like New Years resolutions. I like to take some time once a year to reflect on the year and think about what progress I’ve made, what I’ve learned, where I’ve failed, and to make goals for the coming year. I feel like it’s a really great way to take control of the direction of your life, and who you’re going to become. I suppose there are other ways to accomplish this, maybe even better ones, but if you don’t have some sort of intentional practice like this, you’re doomed to drift aimlessly. You might stop growing and stagnate, but it’s more likely you will continue to develop and change, just not according to your own design, rather according to the will of the forces acting upon you, whatever that may be (that’s not why I brought up inertia, but ii ties in rather nicely, doesn’t it?).

So, every year, and sometimes at points within the year, I make personal resolutions, about changes I want to make in my life, habits I want develop, goals I want to achieve, feats I want to accomplish. And most of the time… I fall off whatever wagon I’ve boarded within a week to a month. But we are getting close to the end of February when all hope and pretense has typically been abandoned, and while things haven’t gone perfectly, I’ve managed to stick with most of the changes I decided to institute. There are various factors at play there, but the common thread I see, is better harnessing of the law of inertia.

For example, one change I wanted to make was to get back to reading my Bible and praying daily. This is something I’ve done habitually off and on since I was a teenager, but it has been more off than on the last few years, and I wanted to change that. I’ve tried to instantiate a habit of daily Bible Study at various times, and in various ways in the past. I’ve tried making it part of my nightly routine before going to bed, but I find myself rather tired after a long day, and it’s very tempting to skip Bible Study in favor watching TV or going to sleep. That’s not a flattering thing to admit, but it’s true. At other times, I have tried to incorporate it into a midday lunch or coffee break, but I don’t usually eat lunch, and if I do, it’s usually for social reasons, to talk to another person. Coffee breaks are more likely to be solitary, but again, I don’t take them reliably. Not only that, once I start work for the day, my mind is full of tasks and work-related considerations; I find it very difficult to clear my mind enough to focus on prayer and study of ancient religious texts. I can read the words, but in my head I find I can barely hear them over the buzz of ideas, tasks, possible solutions, and the rest. So, why not get up early and do Bible Study before the day starts? Sounds great. But I found that the peace and quiet encountered getting up early to do Bible Study just lulled me back to sleep. My head would crash down on the page after reading the same sentence 5 times. Are all of these excuses for lack of character and discipline? Absolutely. Does that make me a terrible person? Yes! I may be struggling with my daily Bible Study, but I got that far. Does any of that help me solve my problem? Not even a little.

The last time I was really consistent about Bible Study, I was working for a software company down in Austin. I didn’t have to be in the office until 9:00AM or so, but I found that traffic was much better if I came in earlier, before 8:30AM. So I would drive in early, and then sit in my car doing Bible Study before I walked into the office. I was totally alone, the demands of the day wouldn’t hit until I got out of my car and walked inside. And I had been driving for 20-30 minutes, so my brain had time to work the cobwebs out and I was no longer in danger of falling asleep. I kept my Bible in my car in the passenger seat, within easy reach. It meshed with my daily routine and everything was going great, until I moved to a different job where I got to telecommute. Telecommuting was great, except that I no longer had a commute to provide that space between waking up and starting work, and the habit was soon lost.

Today, I am self-employed, and there is a bit less routine in my routine. Most days I work at my office in Round Rock, but some days I work from home, and sometimes I work on site with clients. But about a year and a half ago I started training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at a local gym. They have 6:00AM classes every weekday just around the corner. So I decided to keep my Bible in the car again, and do my Bible Study in the car before class. If that doesn’t work out, when I drive to my office or wherever I am going to work for that day, I get a second chance to do my Bible Study.

What does this have to do with inertia? When I would try to break away from work midday, I already had significant momentum propelling me down a different path. Likewise, when I tried to get up early, inertia was causing me to want to stay at rest, falling asleep again. But when I am in the car about to go into the office or the gym, my previous momentum has already been halted and a force is being applied (existing habit) to move me in a different direction, but I can nudge it slightly by pausing to read my Bible right there. Choosing that moment in my day allows me to make my change by applying the minimal force, which makes it more likely I’ll be able to stick with the habit for the long haul.

Here’s another related example that applies our handy metaphor slightly differently. As I mentioned, I started training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu weekday mornings at 6:00AM. It’s great exercise, both mental and physical, I always leave in a great head space to start my day. The problem is, when my alarm goes off at 5:30AM, it’s a little hard to remember all those benefits, and to accurately weigh them against how warm and cozy my bed is. At first, it was easy, because it was new and fresh, but after I had been training a few months, that motivation wore off. And I particularly ran into trouble after taking a few days off if I was sick or injured. If I slept late one morning, it was easier to sleep in the next, and harder to get up (inertia strikes again). The same issue would crop up on Monday mornings, since I didn’t train on the weekends. So recently, I instituted a new personal policy. I would get up at 5:30AM, 7 days a week, sick, injured, healthy, training or not, traveling or home. I have fallen short of that a few times, but by and large, I manage to get up at 5:30AM more consistently, and make it to BJJ more regularly. And when I am not going to BJJ it affords me extra time to get other things done.

Whatever I am doing, I lay out my clothes and gear the night before, and I decide in advance what I’m going to do when I get up, selecting physical, rather than sedentary activities, so I don’t sit down and fall asleep. If I’m not training, I might work out, or meet a friend for coffee, or work on some project around the house. Even if I just do some dishes, it gets me moving, I get something done, I’m better able to sleep that night, and I’m better able to get up at the same time the next day.

The key here is that I don’t have to overcome as much inertia to get up 5:30, because it’s become the thing I do every morning.

Now this blog is really supposed to be about technology and business, so I probably shouldn’t have spent so long on personal habits and physics, but if you’re still reading I guess you’ve forgive me. I’ll bring it back home, I promise. Thanks for sticking me this far.

Businesses have inertia as well. For example, it has often been observed that it is far easier to sell to existing clients than it is to acquire new ones. You have already overcome inertia by establishing yourself as a vendor, service provider, or supplier, a solution to that clients’ problems. You already have their trust; they already know your value. With a new client, you have to build that relationship from scratch.

But this can apply other aspects of your business. This is why we try to develop repeatable processes. If you find a way to solve a problem, or generate a new stream of revenue, you want to try and turn that into a repeatable process, so you can continue reaping those benefits, and hopefully scale out by having more people use the same process to generate even more revenue. Once you discover and document that repeatable process, you can start to look at automating it. There are probably software tools out there that can handle parts you were doing manually. If not, it might be an opportunity for some new custom software that could give you a competitive advantage. Maybe you already have some tools you’re using in a repeatable process, you just need a solution to integrate those tools, or eliminate manual entry. Each step refining your repeatable process makes you more efficient, more scalable, and more profitable, but in each case you’re just adding a bit of force to an already spinning flywheel. It takes effort to refine the process, but the return on investment is much greater, and the risk much lower, because you’re refining an already verified process.

You also see this a lot with online marketing. There are so many ways to promote and market a business, that when you’re starting from square one, it’s hard to know where to focus your energy. Everything seems like a shot in the dark, but when you find something that works, modern marketing analytics can help you zero in on exactly what it was that worked. Was it landing page A or landing page B? Was is that Google Ads campaign or the Facebook campaign? What demographics seemed to respond the most? If you can find these patterns, it’s very easy to take something that has been successful in generating leads and repeat it at larger scale, driving ever more business to your doorstep. Once you find something that works, it only takes a little extra force to accelerate it, because it’s already an object in motion.

What are the repeatable processes that you’ve discovered in your business which consistently discover success? How do you go about defining and documenting them? How can you refine them to be more efficient and more effective?