The Power and Plight of Inertia

asia Jul 16, 2019

When I first arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam for the fifth month of my remote year, I was petrified to cross the street. As 50 motorbikes would go zooming down the road in all directions without a care for the pedestrians crossing, I would stand on the sidewalk paralyzed.  I thought that maybe I should just stick to the restaurant on my side of the street or at least wait for some local people to cross and tag along with them.  

This got me thinking about Isaac Newton.  His First Law of Motion states: "A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force." This means that things cannot start, stop, or change direction all by themselves.  Things stay moving or not moving until we change them. 

When I think about the reasons why many of my Remote Year friends decided to start this 1-year journey, it was often because of some external force/person/situation that "pushed" them to make a change.  Maybe it was a romantic break-up, a high pressure job that reached its boiling point, a death of a close friend or family member. 

Why do we wait until these difficult moments to make a change?  Why don't we have the intrinsic motivation to start or stop something instead of waiting until some external factor makes the decision for us?

The answer is in the power of inertia.  When we have a routine and a pattern, we know what to expect and it gives us security and safety.  That knowing and predictability is valuable to us because it gives us a sense of comfort and ease.  If we create a habit of running every single morning, we are more likely to keep doing it every day.  If we never eat dessert after dinner, we are unlikely to start. 

When it comes to "positive" patterns in our life, inertia can often serve us well.  However, if we go to a job every morning for 5 years, especially one that we don't like, inertia can be our worst enemy.  Inertia motivates us to do something today simply because we did it yesterday. We may have started a specific job initially because we truly enjoyed it, we felt we were making an impact, or we were developing skills essential to our long term career goals.  But if we don't check in with ourselves regularly, we may not realize that the reasons why we started that job no longer serve us and we actually don't even know why we're currently doing what we're doing at all.

Since inertia can help us to get the job done, by some standards, that seems like a success.  That is what is called in the book Primed to Perform as tactical performance, which is executing a plan or a process exactly how it's been laid out.  Often times its the minimum needed to get the work done.  And that can be very important because best practices and processes may exist for a reason. 

However, the plight of inertia is that if the goal for my fellow remote workers is not just the flexible lifestyle but also high levels of performance and fulfillment in their work and in their life, then adaptive performance is required. 

Adaptive performance is our ability to successfully diverge from a plan; to innovate on the spot to come up with creative solutions to solve problems. 

When we are faced with unexpected challenges or changes (as is much of life and much of being a digital nomad like me), adaptive performance is much more likely to occur if we are very clear on what intrinsically motivates us to work.  The book, Primed to Perform, calls these intrinsic motivators "direct motivators" as they are directly related to the work itself as well as connected to our own values and beliefs, like feeling a sense of play, purpose, and potential

The reason why many people become remote or location independent workers is not because they are not serious about their careers, or just want a permanent vacation, or don't want to work hard. 

It is because the inertia of their former traditional office jobs made them feel like they were not performing at their best.  They didn't feel excited or inspired anymore to do great work.  Many assume that if they could have the flexibility to do the same job in the location of their choice, they'd be invigorated and motivated to perform better. 

However, once they have the lifestyle and flexibility that remote work provides, they often realize that while they no longer feel the inertia of taking the same long commute, into the same office, at the same time everyday, the reasons why they continue to do their job are still due to external forces that have nothing to do with the work itself like emotional and economic pressure.

Remote workers feel a lot of emotional pressure to prove to themselves, their team, boss, family and friends that they can be just as productive and successful as when they were in the office or in a more "traditional" environment.  They may also feel economic pressure because, like in the case of digital nomads, without their salary and bonus, it would be difficult to maintain their traveling lifestyle. These external pressures ensure that they continue to deliver only tactical performance. 

While it may be OK for some people or organizations, the highest levels of performance and fulfillment come from truly enjoying our work, feeling like we're making an impact, and continuing to grow and develop our skills.

We must remember Newton's law when we allow undesirable habits or work to stay in motion for too long, as the more momentum they gain, the more difficult it is to stop them.  Also, we should consider that to get something moving from a resting position takes more effort than to keep it in motion once it’s already going. 

So It's important to keep the momentum going on what we want in our careers by checking in with ourselves regularly and asking questions like: Why am I still doing this job?  Is this type of work still serving me?  Are my reasons for doing this connected to my enjoyment of it, the alignment of it with my values, or my goals for my future? Or am I doing this because if I didn't, I would let myself or someone else down?  Am I doing this just for the paycheck?  Do I even know why I am bothering to do this at all? 

Don't wait for someone or something else to decide when the time is right for you to change the direction of your inertia.  It's your life.  You decide.

Now, when I cross the street in Hanoi, I don't stay stagnant on my side of the street - a place I no longer want to be. I don't wait for locals to decide when it's time to cross as my impetus to be brave.  I remind myself of why I want to cross, I put out my hand signaling the stop of the inertia of motorbikes that don't serve my purpose and I walk confidently knowing that I'll feel great once I get what I want on the other side, which is typically a delicious bowl of bun cha.

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