The vis insita, or innate force of matter, is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavours to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line.
– Isaac Newton
Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. The more inertia objects have, the greater their resistance this external force.
Here’s an example: When you’re riding in a car that makes a left turn, your body feels like it’s being pushed to the right side of the car. It’s resisting the left turn – it would rather keep going the direction it was going.
This basic concept of physics, cemented forever in my mind in engineering school, is a very powerful mental model for explaining how the world works. If we look around, the concept of inertia is everywhere. I’ve listed some out below, although it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface.
When big, successful companies face big changes in their market, they often fail to respond effectively. This is captured in the timeless HBR article, Why Good Companies Go Bad:
Unable to defend themselves against competitors armed with new products, technologies, or strategies, they watch their sales and profits erode, their best people leave, and their stock valuations tumble. Some ultimately manage to recover—usually after painful rounds of downsizing and restructuring—but many don’t.
Suffering from active inertia, they get stuck in their tried-and-true activities, even in the face of dramatic shifts in the environment. Instead of digging themselves out of the hole, they dig themselves in deeper.
The fresh thinking that led to a company’s initial success is often replaced by a rigid devotion to the status quo.
Climate inertia describes the widespread inherent characteristic of the climate, ecological, and socio-economic systems. Inertia from anthropogenic impacts may be slow to become apparent, or could be irreversible if climate change crosses associated thresholds. Melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica take time to respond to the emissions of fossil fuel carbon in the climate system. The global warming also causes thermal inertia, thermal expansion of the oceans, which contributes to sea level rise. It has been estimated that we are already committed to a sea-level rise of approximately 2.3 meters for each degree of temperature rise within the next 2,000 years.
And just as there is inertia in the climate itself, there is inertia in our response to it:
One of the implicit assumptions made by scientists, and activists, has been that human decision making is fundamentally rational when in fact it is highly mediated by emotional and other non-rational factors. Simply putting the facts about climate change forward will not automatically produce the required decisions and behavioral changes. Instead, an individual may become overwhelmed by the sheer scale and complexity of the problem, leading to feelings of helplessness and psychological paralysis. To escape such feelings a person may simply deny or ignore the issue. Schumacher has even proposed that the ability to escape psychological discomfort and pain was a critical evolutionary strategy as human beings developed higher levels of intelligence and self-awareness1. He also posits that the ability to strategically manipulate reality is what has allowed humanity to continue to degrade the very environment upon which it depends for its survival.
Individuals and groups construct a mental map of reality to be able to both understand and functionally operate within the world around them. As human society has become more complex the required complexity of this worldview has greatly increased, and the length of time to acquire it has expanded. A large number of social institutions, including the family, church, school, work-place and media channels are involved to differing degrees in providing worldviews which allow individuals to function adequately within modern complex societies.
This socialization2 is critical to the ongoing functioning and cohesiveness of any human group, from small hunter-gatherer bands to a modern country with possibly hundreds of millions of citizens. Hound and Hou capture the scale of such efforts, “Indoctrination is, of course, present in every society. The permanence of the values which insure social stability could hardly be maintained unless schools, religious institutions, military organizations, and scores of other associations — both compulsory and voluntary — worked to implant in the minds the ethical norms and behaviour patterns of a social and political culture. The rigidity of such norms may vary from place to place, and there may be more or less uniformity in the messages issuing from agencies and organizations. Still, in any society, the area of consensus fostered by popular indoctrination needs to be substantial — particularly in times of internal and external crisis
Our personal finances
Someone once told me I shouldn’t worry much about increasing my income because my expenses will just rise along with it. I’ve heard the called the “suitcase phenomenon” or budget creep. I disagreed at the time and still do, but I get where he was coming from. It can feel like our monthly expenses are something we can’t control. We spend X dollars and we’re not sure where it’s going or what to do about it, which makes the outgoing dollars hard to slow down.
Our personal habits
Whether positive or negative, our habits carry a certain inertia with them. When I’m meditating every day, it’s easier to sit down and meditate. When I haven’t meditated in a month, getting started is tough. Same with working out. But once you do start, you can build inertia in the positive direction too. This is a great reminder to create some positive inertia by starting small:
With this half step, everything is different. You haven’t achieved any goals … but you’ve moved. You haven’t created something amazing … and yet, more than ever before, you have.
You’ve created beauty and joy and movement where none existed before, where previously only constriction and paralysis and confusion lived. You have changed the world.
Since I’ve started to focus my mornings on output vs. input, I’ve noticed a ton of writing ideas that just sort of pop into my head throughout the day. It’s like the creative process releases a valve of more creativity. These extra ideas provide me with more motivation to keep writing, which will (hopefully) in turn spur more ideas. When I’m not writing, this inertia isn’t there.