The Physics of Change

inertia-e1455505796605It’s called inertia.

That force that keeps us from doing things differently, even though we know it’s in our best interest, is called inertia. Isaac Newton first wrote about it back in 1687. While studying the physics of motion, he discovered that “an object that is at rest will stay at rest unless a force acts upon it.” Likewise, he observed that “an object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless a force acts upon it.”

Of course, while developing his First Law of Motion, Newton referenced primarily inanimate objects – things like apples and planets. He wasn’t really interested in understanding why people acted the way they did. However, the same principle that explains why the pen on my desk doesn’t move unless I pick it up points toward some realizations about how and why we respond to potential change.

In terms of human behavior, inertia represents the tendency to continue in whatever course of action we are presently engaged in. Sometimes, that means no action. Think about physical fitness, for example. It’s very difficult for a couch potato to change their behavior and suddenly start working out. But for individuals who do work out (or run, bike, etc.), asking them skip a session could earn you a dirty look. Why is it that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, while a body in motion tends to stay in motion?

We’re creatures of habit. The human brain is full of neural pathways – connections that link specific behaviors and consequences. Every new behavior creates a neural pathway. Subsequent repetitions of the same behavior reinforce that pathway. Over time, that pathway becomes well-defined, almost like a rut in a dirt road. When we go to perform an action, the brain looks for established patterns of behavior and follows the path of least resistance – the rut. Eventually, certain activities become so ingrained we don’t even have to concentrate on what we’re doing. Muscle memory takes over and we act without thinking.

Subtle shifts in behavior are often just as hard to make as drastic ones. When I go mountain biking, I’m often faced with trails that are riddled with ruts left by other bikers. Sometimes I’ll try to ride just to the side of existing ruts in order to provide for a smoother ride without causing significant further impact to the trail. However, I almost always find this method of riding difficult to sustain. Try as I might to ride the edge, I just keep sliding back into the rut. Carving an entirely new route can actually be easier. Without the convenience of an established path to fall back on, I have no choice but to embrace something new.

Breaking one habit requires creating another one. Even though I’ve begun the process of creating a new pathway, my next trip down the trail presents me with the same challenge. Until I’ve traveled the new path enough times for it to become established, I’ll have to fight the tendency to follow the old one – the rut. It takes time for my mind and body to see the new pathway as the obvious choice. Old habits die hard. It takes focus and determination to kill them.

So what does this mean for effectively implementing significant change, either personally, or in our teams? How do we approach change in a way that helps people accept it, embrace it, and stick with it?

1. Accept that significant change takes effort. Like pulling out of a rut on the bike trail, shifting behavior requires concentrated effort. It’s not easy. Just because someone has a tough time adjusting to a new process doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t agree with it. Even the easiest, most desirable change can take its toll on people. Recognize the effort that’s required.

2. Accept that significant change takes time. Meaningful change doesn’t occur overnight. Allow ample time for people to process what’s being asked of them and to come to terms with their own feelings about it. Set your expectations in such a way that, as an agent of change, you don’t become frustrated with what appears to be a failure to accept new processes.

3. Accept that significant change takes repetition. Understand that I order for a new process to become routine, old habits have to fade. For that to happen, new habits – new neural pathways – have to be created. Until the new route is firmly established, people will occasionally fall back into the rut.

As Newton discovered so long ago, change doesn’t just happen. With the right kind of approach, though, effective change can be realized. Using the right combination of focused effort, repetition, and time will allow you to overcome inertia.


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