Motivation vs. Inertia — Newton’s first law when applied to getting stuff done

Having enjoyed a relatively relaxed coffee in the sun this afternoon, I struggled to get the momentum to go to my Wing Chun (martial arts class) this evening. I want to do it to learn how to defend myself, I enjoy the class so signed up for regular classes but I still wish I had teleportation powers to make the journey. Given that there is this motivation, albeit big picture motivation, why am I struggling? I thought about this some more as I set my alarm and made my way to bed for a 10-min ‘nap’ — in that moment, I knew one thing, my body just wanted to be flat. With my arms tucked under, with the duvet up to my neck, I was almost ‘trapped’. I could have comfortably stayed there for a long time. Then I thought of inertia and Newton’s First Law of Motion — “ Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it”. So if I’m moving, I’ll continue to do so unless something changes it. If I’m not moving, I’ll stay that way until something changes it. It could be an external force (e.g. alarm clock), physiological force (e.g. I need to go pee) or mental force (e.g. I really should/want go to class).

Inertia is driven by habits. The momentum is carried as the next step is already known so there’s less resistance. Motivation, however, requires conscious thought and that means willpower, a mental force.

In terms of the The Elephant, The Rider and The Path in habit formation, I see motivation in two ways — ‘rational’ where the rider sets a target, bribing the elephant with peanuts to move along, and emotional where the elephant calls the shots. Internal inertia is affected by the agreement of both the rider and elephant together. If the elephant is happy with the rider’s suggestion, the journey is a lot smoother and give momentum and motivation both a boost. External inertia is like the rider on the elephant on a treadmill. When you get swept up in a moment because of the energy of the people around you or vice versa, such as when the whole office goes into an afternoon slump.

So how to hack it?

  • External boost— surround yourself with people who inspire and drive you to do more of the things that you want to do
  • Physiological boost— listen to higher tempo music to get your energy up; drink caffeine strategically depending on the activity
  • Mental boost— Know your why, your big picture

In the end, I got up before my alarm (my external/physiological boost to at least get out of bed) and I remembered my why (mental boost).

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