Solving the Human Inertia Predicament


May 11, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

We all say we want the same things out of life. Why do we do the opposite of what it takes to achieve them—maintaining misery instead?

When I ask people, “what really matters in your life?” they generally reply along the following five themes: health, wealth, relationships, happiness, and meaning. In the past, I have focused on relationships. My focus of late has been on happiness and meaning.

It’s interesting that as much as everyone claims to want happiness and meaning, a paradoxical catch blocks us at every turn. Here it is:

• Our default response in life is not to experience happiness.

• Our default response in life is not to experience meaning.

• Our default response in life is to experience inertia.

In other words, our most common everyday process—the thing we do more often than anything else—is continuing to do what we’re already doing.

Don’t believe me? If you’ve ever come to the end of a TV show, then passively continued watching the next show on the same channel, you know the power of inertia. You have only to press a button on the remote (an expenditure of less than one calorie of energy) to change the channel. Many of us cannot even do that, much less turn the thing off. We continue doing what we’re doing even when we no longer want to do it.

Inertia: more than mindless routine

Inertia is incredibly reliable as a short-term predictor. In fact, the most reliable predictor of what you will be doing five minutes from now is what you are doing now. If you’re eating now, you’ll probably be eating five minutes from now. If you’re reading or surfing the net now, you’ll likely be reading or surfing the net five minutes from now.

Once you appreciate the predicament of inertia, you may become aware of its paralyzing effect on every aspect of your life, and not just on mindless routines. Inertia affects the things that really matter, such as the level of happiness and meaning in your life.

How do you break the cycle of inertia? It’s not a matter of exerting heroic willpower and discipline. All that’s required is the use of a simple discipline, which comes in the form of an experiment I want you to try.

As you go through your day, I want you to evaluate each activity on a 1-to-10 scale (with 10 being the highest score) based on two simple questions:

1. How much long-term benefit or meaning did I experience from this activity?

2. How much short-term satisfaction or happiness did I experience in this activity?

charting your happiness and meaning

Record the activities that make up your day, both at work and at home, then evaluate each activity by applying these two questions.

There are no right or wrong answers or bad scores. No one else can answer the questions for you. This is your test, based on your experience of happiness and meaning. Do this all day and you will soon have a chart that tracks your experience of happiness and meaning. You may end up with much more than a score.

The two-question process can be applied to any activity. Say you are about to attend a one-hour staff meeting. You don’t want to go; you think it’s a waste of time. Before you attend the meeting, do the two-question exercise. Remember, it’s your life. Do you want to derive as much meaning and happiness from your life as you can? Or do you want to feel miserable and empty? Remember, it’s your choice.

You have two options. The first option is to attend the meeting and be miserable (probably assisting other attendees in being miserable, too). The second option is to make the meeting more meaningful and enjoyable. You might do this by more closely observing your colleagues, by asking the attendees a question you’ve been dying to ask, or by sharing an idea that you think will help the organization in the future.

What you have done is very simple. You have changed how you approached the activity. You have changed your mindset. You are no longer defaulting to inertia—miserably continuing to do what you have been doing. This is one simple way to solve the predicament of inertia, regain control of your future, and create positive lasting change.