Lacking Motivation? Use the Theory of Inertia

After arriving in Lisbon by train, one of the first things that I did after stepping onto the platform was to pull my phone out of my pocket and to hail an Uber. This initial action soon became my default for travelling around the city. It was cheap, easy and convenient. After a month, I started to feel guilty however and resolved to use public transport instead. Despite utilizing Google Maps, I found it difficult to change my habit. Why did I find it so difficult to change my behaviour? There were a number of friction points that were stopping me from changing my habit: I needed a travel card which could only be purchased from a different location, I needed to navigate the bus routes and figure out the schedules. However, each time I used the bus it became easier as the friction was reduced and now my default is to use the bus and not an Uber.
This had me thinking about behaviour change. Often people talk about ‘education’ being the key to changing peoples’ habits, for example, people need to be educated about the harmful of effect of smoking/eating unhealthy food/not exercising etc. I see the problem not being one about education but about inertia: If you have been doing something a particular way for a long time, it becomes increasingly harder to do something different.
Newton First Law of Motion states: an object which isn’t subject to any other force moves at a constant speed. Therefore an object will continue moving at its current speed (and direction) until some force causes its speed or direction to change.
Using a (Small) Force to Change Behaviour
A number of months ago I set myself a 30 day challenge to eat salad for lunch every day. I resisted. I didn’t want to eat salad every day, I wanted to eat what I had always been eating, which certainly wasn’t as healthy. I needed to use a force to change the inertia, of the direction I was heading.
 My solution was to give myself permission to go down the road to a salad bar every day and to order whatever I wanted. This changed my behaviour quickly and easily because:
  • I’m motivated to go out to lunch every day.
  • I’m motivated to pick and choose from a schmogensboard of tasty food options.
  • I’m motivated to have someone else make my lunch for me.
I didn’t need to look up recipes or think about what I was going to make. I didn’t need to buy new ingredients, I could just walk 5 minutes down the road and feel not guilty about spending $10 on a salad as I had given myself permission to do it every day.
As I got into the habit of eating a healthy and tasty lunch, it became my norm. I started to learn to make salads myself on the weekends too, learning from the ingredients and combinations they used in the shop. After the 30 days were over, I found it easy to go from eating salads at the shop to eating them at home.
If you are wanting to change your behaviour think about reducing the friction in getting started by:
  1. Starting small
  2. Use outside help, for example:
(i) Hire a trainer
(ii) Use a meal preparation service or share meal preparation with someone else
(iii) Hire a babysitter so that you can go for a run
  1. Reward yourself after you have made a start
  2. Slowly reduce the amount you use the outside help
I’ve used the same principle to help me get started when I am lacking motivation or a big challenge is overwhelming. For example, I’ll use:
  1. An easy, mindless chore like washing up or laundry to help me get up and moving before I tackle a bigger task
  2. If I lack motivation to go running, I’ll give myself permission to only run 1 mile. Usually, once I am outside I am quite happy to continue running more than just one mile.
Can you think of any others ways you can use the theory of inertia to change your behaviour or motivation?
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