“Why is change so hard?!” This plaintive statement I’ve heard from clients (and muttered myself once or twice with added emphasis). Change is difficult because of two very important “laws” of nature. One from the world of physics and another from neuroscience.
If you don’t remember Newton’s first law of motion, it’s okay. To paraphrase Newton, an object endeavors to maintain it’s present state, whether it is at rest or moving in a straight line. The law of inertia is defined as a resistance to change. To shift from a state of inertia, an object must be impacted by some sort of catalyst.
Inertia is part of what holds the Universe (as we know it) together. The heat and kinetic energy of moving objects counterbalance the force of inertia in maintaining equilibrium in our world.
As important as inertia is to the world of physics, we tend to forget this law when we consider our own behavior, and we punish ourselves for it.
Johannes Kepler, the astronomer, first used inertia to describe what he observed in space. It is derived from the Latin iners, meaning idle or sluggish. Later definitions of inertia include inactivity, idleness, unskillfulness, and ignorance. The adjective inert means “without inherent force, having no power to respond.” Is it any wonder we berate ourselves when we can’t seem to meet our exercise or diet goals?
What about neuroscience? Given the brain’s responsibilities, it is designed to preserve energy. While monitoring our vital bodily functions, giving commands to the nerves and muscles to allow us to navigate through space, it also has the capacity allow our obsessions about that “irrelevant” comment we made in a staff meeting or the “stupid” question we just asked.
To manage all that it does, the brain looks for patterns, makes assumptions, and basically, prefers to do what it has already learned. That saves energy for higher order challenges, like problem solving and creativity.
Do you develop routines in the morning to minimize thinking and maximize action? Humans fall into habits, shopping in the same stores, driving the same way to work, eating the same type of foods, because once we learn something, it is easier to do what we’ve already done.
In other words, our patterns, habits, and repetitive actions and thoughts create strong neural networks that the brain establishes and would prefer to use again and again to reduce energy output. It’s like the difference between driving on a superhighway with no traffic versus navigating an unpaved road with lots of potholes.
Is it any wonder effecting change is difficult? So what is a poor human bound by inertia and plagued by the energy efficiency of the brain supposed to do when they want to create change?
First, quit beating yourself up and recognize that the law of physics and the wiring of your brain are working against you. Then use that knowledge to help you create change. To overcome inertia takes an action. The action doesn’t need to be as dramatic as a colliding meteor. Start small.
To overcome writer’s block, Hemingway focused on writing “one true sentence.” He didn’t try to write 1000 or 2000 words if he was experiencing an absence of his muse. He focused on one small.
If you wish to override the brain’s desire for and habit of doing what it has always done, again start small. Take one action that will begin to move you toward your goal. Then acknowledge the action, recognize what you have done, assign a positive emotion to it, give yourself a gold star, and a pat on the back.
When you focus on the action, acknowledge it, and align it with a positive emotion, you are counteracting the negativity bias of the brain.
It’s easier to overcome inertia and the brain’s natural tendencies, if you know what you are up against and use it to your advantage. And it is much more pleasant than berating yourself for what you haven’t been able to accomplish.
What new behavior do you want to develop? Break it down into small actions, acknowledge your successes, and align each action with a positive emotion. Remember, you are creating a new neural pathway effectively “rewriting your brain” and operating as a catalyst against your own inertia.