The Attraction of“Intuitive” Inertia

Why is it so hard to change course?

I am always wrestling with questions of human nature and wondering how to become more efficient and productive while also knowing when to step back, reframe, and rest. What I find fascinating about these kinds of considerations is that they never seem to get easier.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve been framing my days lately as first a focus on improving, followed by a period of enjoyment. While framing my days this ways does encourage me to focus and devote hours to meaningful goals during the day and then relax and rejuvenate in the evening, I still find that I resist the routine that I know is best for me. Why? I think the answer lies in a property of physics, actually: inertia.

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Inertia comes from the Latin word, iners, which means idle, or sluggish. Isaac Newton defined inertia as the first law of Physics in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which states:

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.

Basically, this is the line we all learned at some point in school: “an object in motion stays in motion; an object at rest stays at rest”. Whether we are discussing physics or human nature, inertia seems to play a huge role in how we operate in our world.

For me, each day when I wake up I am excited to get into my cozy little corner of the couch with an “improve” book — right now it’s Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow — to read and learn for a couple of hours while I wake up slowly with my coffee.

Next, I want to transition to my desk/nook area to study Japanese. But inertia compels me to stay in my couch corner longer than I should. Once I finally convince myself to get up (usually because I need to go to the bathroom, due to aforementioned coffee) I suddenly seem to get a second wind of movement and often decide to keep that going and exercise before I study.

An hour or so later, I have some endorphins flowing, and know objectively that it would be a great time to settle into studying, but instead it seems like a better idea to take a walk! I am reminded of the funny scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when Harry takes Felix Felicis, a potion that makes the drinker lucky, and suddenly ignores his best-laid plans in to follow his intuitions about what feels right in the moment:

I experience a similar pull towards an intuitive sense of what feels right in each moment (inertia: continuing to do what I’ve been doing, or not doing, in the present moment) that runs up against what I know is actually going to make me happiest and most productive in the long-run (improving, then enjoying and following my routine consistently).

I suppose simply acknowledging the tension between intuitive inertia and proactive…action?…is half the battle. Metacognitively wrestling with such things makes us more aware of the tension inherent in our daily behavior, and being aware of that tension may make us more likely to overcome it in productive ways that optimize our lives.

I suspect that this kind of reflection has value for all areas of life. For example, right now there seems to be a big push towards intuitive eating, a kind of anti-diet way of eating that honors listening to your body and the signals it sends rather than following external rules or guidelines. While this is inherently attractive…I wonder…at least for certain people…is this just another way of lulling us into the complacency of inertia? Multiple studies have shown that, left to our own devices, we seem to gain weight at the rate of about .5 to 1 kg per year. It takes strategic interventions to stop or reverse that trend. Not exactly and intuitive process, most likely. Intuition would nudge us to stay comfy on our couches and indulge our tastebuds in the salty, sweet, fatty foods that tend, over time, to damage our hunger hormone signaling and lead to weight gain.

Maybe “intuitive” is just a misnomer for “inert” in many cases? Idle, sluggish, given to maintaining the present course? Status quo? Whatever the case, I think it’s super important to be aware of this intangible force on our daily lives and to fight against it, to some extent. Just like resistance training helps combat muscle loss in middle-age, we need to resist the inertia of going with the flow sometimes if we want to be our best selves.

What do you think? Am I being to harsh about “intuitive” ways of being? Have you experienced either a time when your intuition led you right, or astray? Or, conversely, have you resisted your intuition to overcome an obstacle? I’m so curious! The more I read Kahneman’s book the more I am thinking that our so-called “System 1” makes all kinds of intuitive snap judgments that are not necessarily trustworthy.