Inertia Comes to Life

In eighth grade, we rolled marbles across desks to study Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion. Last week I used Oreo cookies, fallen leaves, and income taxes.  I rediscovered that the principle of inertia, as it’s generally known, applies not only to matter, but to human behavior, too.  Excellent news!

According to Newton, “an object not subject to any net external force moves at a constant velocity. Thus an object will continue moving at its current velocity until some force causes its speed or direction to change. An object that is not in motion … will remain at rest until some force causes it to move” (Wikipedia).

This is why cars use more gas in city driving than when moving at a steady rate on a freeway.  Starting a car’s motion from a stopped position takes more energy than keeping it going once it’s moving. 

But inertia doesn’t just apply to “your daddy’s Oldsmobile.”  When I eat one Oreo, my hand keeps going back for more, until I’ve eaten at least five cookies.  Only then does willpower or an empty bag exert enough force to stop the movement of cookies into my mouth. On the other hand,if I keep moving past the pantry where the Oreos are, I eat carrots from the refrigerator instead.  Once I’ve started munching on carrots, I’m not easily tempted by Oreos.   Because of inertia, doing what’s healthy creates momentum and makes it easier to avoid what isn’t.

When I was struggling over a writing assignment in junior high, my father told me that when I don’t know what to write, I should just write something.  “You can clean it up later.  The important thing is to get started.”  He was right.  You might say that it’s the principle of inertia applied to writing. 

As I lay on the sofa last week, avoiding my income taxes, I experimented with Newton’s First Law of Motion.  I needed something to counteract the pleasure of lounging in avoidance of an unpleasant task.

A driveway full of fallen leaves came to the rescue.  I realized that if Newton’s theory applies to human behavior, once I started sweeping leaves, I could easily move to the desk and turn my momentum to the taxes.  I pulled myself off the sofa to feel sun on my skin, breathe fresh air and sweep up leaves. It not only worked, it put me in a good mood.  Hooray for Newton and my science teacher!

When I want to change my behavior, I don’t think about forever.  I take the first action, then the second.  Once I’m in gear, it’s easier to keep going.  One year, I abstained from cynical and negative comments for the six weeks prior to Easter.  The change made me happier and reduced my stress.  After six weeks, it was easy to keep the pattern going for a long time. It’s similar in business and organizations of every kind, too:  big changes are easier after small ones get the ball rolling. 

Oreos, taxes, personal and organizational change, car mileage—Isaac Newton is right:  an object will continue moving at its current speed until a force causes it to change speed or direction; and an object not in motion will remain at rest until some force causes it to move. Run your own experiment, then write me a comment about the outcome.

Learning:  Inertia can be used to our benefit.

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