Overcoming Inertia and Creating Habits Efficiently

Posted on March 11, 2013 by

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Over two months ago many of us stated our resolutions and resolved to actually achieve them this year. I hope that you have been able to stick with yours but if you are anything like me you have probably fallen off the wagon by now.

Why is it so hard to create new habits?

I think the biggest problem we face is that we go about it all wrong. We try to do too much too quickly and we exhaust ourselves.

You see it all the time when someone starts eating a new diet, learning a new skill, or implementing a new exercise plan.

  • They try to cut out all grains, sugars, and fats and live only on vegetables and lean meats.
  • They try to practice 3 hours a day until they accumulate 10,000 hours of practice.
  • They try to workout 6 days a week, 45 minutes a day with the goal of a Hollywood body.

The underlying problem is that when you are just getting started you must overcome inertia that is keeping you fixed in place. Most people try to plow through this state by exerting a huge amount of energy.

But after that initial burst you burnout. You use up all of your willpower, energy and reserves to get through the first couple days and weeks. You get up to speed but have nothing left to keep the momentum going.  Eventually you slow down and come to rest again.

What can fuel efficient driving teach us about creating habits?

My car has a fuel economy tracker that shows how many miles per gallon I am getting at any moment in time and I have become obsessed with watching it while I drive.   I began to realize that there are similarities between the amount of energy it takes for a car to get started, build and maintain speed and for a person to do the same with a habit.  By understanding how to drive a car in the most fuel efficient manner we can learn how to start, build and maintain habits efficiently.

Getting started takes a lot of energy

Getting a car moving from a stand still requires the most energy of the entire process. There are two general ways you can get a car moving. You can step on the gas hard, peel out and take-off as quickly as possible or you can ease your foot onto the gas, keep the engine at low RPMs and let the car slowly build speed.

Both methods will result in forward motion but one will consume a lot more energy and will result in more stress on your vehicle.

This is similar to when you start creating a new habit.  In the beginning it will take a huge exertion of mental and physical energy.   You will be tempted to take the more aggressive path and push yourself as hard as possible thinking that is the best way to achieve your goal.

The truth is that you need to save your energy because getting started is just the first step of habit formation.  There is a long road ahead and you need to manage your energy levels to succeed.

Build momentum efficiently and conserve your energy

That first big push got you moving but you are not going very fast yet. Once again you have the option of stepping hard on the gas and revving the engine high or you can slowly climb the gears and keep the engine at low RPMs.

With the aggressive approach you can get up to speed much faster but you will use much more fuel and will be able to travel less distance before you need to stop for gas.

Similarly in your personal life you can choose to ramp-up your habit formation very quickly or you can increase it slowly over time.

Since you have limited amount of energy available you should ramp-up slowly over time.  You may feel that you are not challenging yourself enough and that you still have more to give.  It is OK to hold a little back.  There will come a time when you might need that boost and if you are already at your limits you won’t have anything left to give.

Maintain progress by applying slow and steady pressure

The most efficient way to maintain your speed is to try to stay as close to your average speed as possible. If you let the car slow to 40mph then accelerate up to 120mph you may be averaging 80 mph but you will be operating much less efficiently than if you had just maintained an average speed of 80mph the entire time.

This is a great time to turn on the cruise control and allow the car computer to calculate exactly how much power is needed to maintain your speed.

You may have experienced something similar to this while trying to create a habit.  You were making great progress and then you took a couple days off.  Then you came back twice as hard to make up for lost time.  Maintaining your progress with bursts of activity like this is very inefficient.  It is much smarter to set a daily or weekly goal and keep making regular progress towards developing your habit.

How to create habits efficiently

  • Start slowly.  Resist the urge to do too much too fast.
  • Build momentum efficiently.  Ramp-up the difficulty over time.
  • Maintain steady progress.  Avoid starting and stopping.

If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:
Achieve More with Beeminder
Prepare For Setbacks and Achieve Your Goals
Focus on Base-Skills to Build a Solid Foundation
What Kiteboarding Taught Me About Persistence
Stop Moving the Goalposts


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Posted in: Productivity