James Gallagher


Published on June 3, 2020 in life

I recently experienced how strong the pull of inertia can be.

This year I have been making a point of investing more time in exercise. I decided to start exercising on an exercise bike every day for 30 minutes, and I slowly made my way up to 40 minutes each day. I am proud of the progress that I made, but a few days ago I asked myself a question that turned out to throw me off base a little bit: why am I pushing to do more?

I enjoy doing things to the best extent that I can. Hard work is liberating; it keeps my mind and body in check, and always on a forward trajectory. At the same time, I always want to make sure I am investing my effort in the things that matter most to me. It turned out that, after some thinking, exercising for 40 minutes every day didn't matter to me. 30 minutes was fine, but 40 minutes was a push. There were other things I could be doing with that extra 10 minutes, and the one that came to mind was spending a little bit more time with family. So I set out to change.

This turned out to be more difficult than I thought. When I told myself that I was going to reduce the time I spent on the exercise bike, I started to feel as if I was slacking off. Wouldn't I be betraying my past self if I didn't keep going on the path I was on? Therein lay the rub.

After much contemplation, I am happy to report that I am now exercising on the bike for 30 minutes a day. Problem solved! Hooray, I can finish the blog post here, and maybe go make myself a cup of tea to celebrate. If only it were that simple.

This experience led me to discover a broader problem in my life: inertia. When I set out to build all the habits that I have cultivated, I invested a lot of time in ensuring that they were sustainable. I started small, and worked my way up. I ensured that they would survive, even through the tough times. That's what I thought I was supposed to do. The more robust my habits are, the more they are able to sustain me. Although this, I have come to find, is a double-edged sword: the more engrained your habits are, the more difficult it is to let go of them.

Habits, like goals, need to be renewed every so often. I need to be asking myself: does this habit still resonate with who I am today? Asking myself this question led to a few core discoveries. I still believe in meditation, and so I am going to keep going with my daily meditation. At the same time, I realized that my evening meditation practice doesn't provide me with much value, so I have stopped meditating in the evenings. I am still exercising each day, but I am no longer pushing myself as much. There are better ways I can use the time that was previously ascribed to those activities.

Inertia is a powerful force. It does indeed help me strive to do better. Once I build a habit, I know that habit will keep me going for a long time. My meditation habit has certainly had a positive impact on my mental health, and I am thankful for the inertia I have built up. I know that it's incredibly unlikely that I'll give up on my meditation tomorrow, because I have such a good track record at meditating. I've been doing it for around a year now, and that's not a chain I want to break. I want to keep going.

Inertia becomes dangerous when it fuels patterns that no longer mean anything to you. That's why I've always got to be questioning whether or not the habits that I have developed still resonate with me.

I have come to realize that this principle applies in the context of careers. One thing I have used to justify staying in my current job is that it is the one that I have showed up for every day for the last few months, and so it makes sense for me to keep going. Does this sound like a good reason to do something? No. Just because you done something yesterday, it doesn't mean that thing will serve you well tomorrow. A better reason, and the one that resonates with me now, is that I am sticking with my job because I find it interesting. The day I see no growth opportunities is the day I move on.

Do you feel as though you have stagnated in your career? If this is a question that you are entertaining, you should ask yourself: are you sticking with your job because you really love it, or because it's the thing you already have? The thing about jobs is that it's incredibly easy to build inertia with a job. You have to work every weekday. (Or whatever, I am cognizant of how flexible jobs are becoming nowadays. Don't be a pedant!) You may even think about your job while you're not working. Every time you show up, more inertia is built up. This is good because it will keep you going even when you hit roadblocks in your career -- those are inevitable -- but it is also bad in the sense that it may keep you somewhere that you don't want to be.

Actively ask yourself: is this what I want to be doing with my life? If not, make a change. The thing about inertia is that it is relatively easy to overcome when you acknowledge what it is that you want to change. Changing my exercise bike routine required me to be honest with myself, and it somewhat sucked. I didn't want to tell myself that some of the progress I had made wasn't as fruitful as it could have been. Now I am on the right trajectory, and I feel really happy that I was able to recognize this before I built up even more inertia.

I want to spend my time doing the things that I really want to do. No excuses. If there is a problem I want to work on, I should work on it. If there is an old habit that I feel no longer serves me, I'll get rid of it. Life is too short to let inertia get in the way of progress.

The reason that inertia is a double-edged sword is because we change over time, and I have observed that it is very easy to become ignorant to change. It's easy to keep going with the routines you already have, beacuse they are your norm. Yet how much have you changed since you implemented those routines? I started meditating while I was still in high school. A lot has changed since then. It's no wonder that my routine needed a change.

So James, you're looking for some actionable advice? That makes sense. That's why you write. Well, here it is: keep reevaluating your priorities, and make sure how you spend your time is in line with them. Keeping with the status quo makes little sense when there is something better you could be doing.

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