Posted by bob on July 12, 2015

In physics, you are probably familiar with the concept of inertia: the tendency of an object in motion to stay in motion or an object at rest to stay at rest (unless acted on by an outside force).

There is an equivalent to inertia in human behavior and emotion.  Once we are in motion, it is very hard to stop us; and once we are at rest (comfortable with something) it can be nearly impossible to get us to change.

Human inertia is the thing that keeps us working at a job, long after we have decided that the situation is intolerable.  Why?   Perhaps it is emotionally just too difficult to think about working up the energy to start a new job search.  We would need to update our resume, find suitable new opportunities, and then “sell ourselves” to that new employer.  It is exhausting just to think about, let alone to do in reality.

Do you remember your first day at a new school?  Starting at a new company is a lot like that experience.

The flip side can be found with job-hoppers.  Once they get in motion, they cannot seem to find the stop-switch and settle into any job for a reasonable length of time.  Job-hoppers never seem to complete a project.  They take full credit for successful projects, but never are around long enough to take the blame for any failures.

Human inertia is likewise the thing that leads us to keep doing a task the same way we have always done it, even when we know that the old methods are imperfect.  “We have always done it this way,” we say to each other, as if that really explains anything.

That is not to say that our history (global, company, or personal) did not have many lessons-learned that contributed to this mental lock-in we experience.  Indeed, the errors of our past guided the development of the current system we are using to solve our daily problems.  But we can become fearful (even to the point of superstition) that changing anything in “how we do stuff” will lead to the new problems, and might cause the re-appearance of old problems we thought we had long ago defeated.

Once we recognize this behavior, we need to be willing to go back to first principles, to break down systems and requirements and ask, “Hey, what are we really trying to accomplish here?  Why are we doing it this way?  What are all the ways we could make it better?” 

“Challenge assumptions!” is my battle cry.

Of course you also have to ask, “What are the risks of each change we are considering?”  But you have to be very clear about the difference between simply being afraid of change as compared to having certain knowledge of the outcome of a specific planned action.

Human inertia protects us from some hazards.  If we always walk home along a certain path, and it has always been safe in the past, it probably will be just as safe tomorrow.  But if we don’t occasionally take the risk of a new path, there is little chance that we will encounter a new or better experience.