Momentum & Inertia: How to start things & get them done

In physics, we learn about a phenomenon called inertia. It means that a moving body continues to move at the same speed in the same direction or a stationary body continues to be stationary, unless someone does something to change that. Physicists have also framed a measurement system to measure the inertia of a body. This measurement is called the momentum. Putting a number to momentum is useful for letting us know just how much work must be done in order to make the body do something different than what it is doing now. However, for the purposes of English language, inertia and momentum are often used as opposites. The word inertia is used to describe a body not wanting to move and momentum describes a body not wanting to stop. The common ground for both is that they resist change.

How does this relate to human behaviour and getting things done? Turns out the human body and mind also show signs of inertia and momentum. The human body does not like sudden changes in movement and the human mind does not like sudden changes in behaviour. We can use these two facts to our advantage to start things off and get them done. I also later discuss when NOT to use the effects of momentum, since in certain cases momentum can build behaviour like addiction and inflexibility.

Tip 1: Start with a really small change

As mentioned, the body and mind detest big changes and will not comply if we change too much at once. It is necessary to start change as early as possible and to introduce as little a change as possible. E.g. Olympic gold medalists have spent years to reach their peak conditioning.
Let’s say you want to win an Olympic gold medal in 100 metre sprint. Your target is to run the distance in 9 seconds. That’s 40 kmph! Clearly, your body will not comply on day 1. But if you set yourself the same target for Olympics 2020, it is realistic. You have more than 1000 days at your disposal.
The important thing is to break it down into small changes that your body will like. E.g. one day 1, your goal is to run 25 metres in 10 seconds, no more. This needs you to run at 9 kmph, which is jogging speed. It is a no-brainer to run 25 metres at 9 kmph and you may think that this is not enough preparation for a gold winning sprint. But the point is to unblock the brain’s mental block and procrastination. Your brain cannot refuse such a tiny goal. It is important to start a task and build the momentum subsequently.


This intent to start tiny can be similar for any habit. E.g. to start eating healthy and cut junk, add one slice of fruit and cut back on 3 pieces of chips on day 1.
If you want to stop smoking and you are smoking 5 cigarettes a day, then start by throwing away the fifth cigarette when half of it has burnt away.
Your first blog post can be just 3 to 5 sentences long (in fact Seth Godin is a master of tiny blog posts even today) and can simply describe your day in an anecdotal manner.
Your first meditation session can be 2 minutes long.
You may allow yourself to just make tea or salad for yourself as your first step to kitchen mastery.

Once you tip the domino for a small change, you will find yourself taken over by momentum and find yourself doing more than you originally set yourself up to do. E.g. there are runners who do 5 kilometres on day 1 itself, new bloggers suddenly find themselves posting two blogs on a single day and those who started to eat healthy get trapped into the momentum of healthy thinking and do not touch any kind of snacks for an entire day.

Tip 2: Do not miss your reps

If you have taken heed of tip 1, then, “All’s well and has ‘started’ well”. However do not stop as soon as it has started. It is important to make the time and put in the effort to continue towards your goal. Running a kilometre on day 1, only to sleep in on the following days, eating an apple at snack time when you start, only to find yourself gorging on chips and cola during the next snack break are not good signs. As mentioned, your body and mind resist change and it is your job to steer them towards the right direction gently.

It is necessary to make your changes a habit and for that it is necessary to practice the change at every opportunity that you get. There must be a conscious effort to bring your change into your lifestyle. A habit of healthy eating must ensure that your every meal consists of at least something healthy. Your olympic dreams can only reach fruition if you practice every day, even if only for five to ten minutes.

However, we all understand that life happens. We travel, fall sick, have busy days at work and so on and so forth. However, habit coach James Clear recommends not missing your habit for two or more days in a row. I find that advice very effective.

Tip 3: 1% improvement every single attempt

With tip 1, you put in something tiny and ensured that you got off the blocks. With tip 2, you made a habit to move towards your goal. Now I will set you a challenge. Can you make a 1% improvement with every attempt?
You ran 5km in an hour today. Can you improve your distance tommorrow and run 5km and 50 metres? Or want to improve your speed and run 5km in 59 minutes? Either way, it is an improvement over today’s record and I urge you to take up one of the two challenges.
Had 8 slices of apples and 100 grams of chips? Time to change it to 10 slices and 95 grams.
The important point is to improve and get closer to your desired change by a little more at every attempt.

Not many have mastered this rule practically than Sir Dave Brailsford, the performance director of the Team Sky professional British bicycling team which has dominated the coveted Tour de France this decade (wins in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016). Asked about the secret of the team’s success, Brailsford attributed it to the paradigm of 1% improvement everyday in everything that they do. Not only did Team Sky do well in Tour de France, but the effect carried over to the British bicyclists during 2008 Beijing, 2012 London and the 2016 Rio Olympics, as they won a series of gold medals in individual and team events in both road and track racing.

In this video, Sir Dave Brailsford explains his principle of ‘marginal gains’ to improve dramatically over time.

So keep in mind that the formula for big wins is not to make big leaps in your performance, but a consistent and ongoing 1% with every attempt.

Tip 4: Engineer your environment

It is known that your mind is diverted towards distractions and temptations. So why have them in the first place? By engineering your environment, you shift your momentum from one behaviour to another.

Let’s take an example. You intend to sleep by 11 pm every night, but your smartphone and Internet router are still on. You have just put your phone down. It is clear that your momentum is still leaning towards watching the electronic screen. One more notification and you are surely going to pick your phone. Why not build the momentum in the opposite direction. Start preparing by 10 pm and the momentum will build up such that you are ready to fall asleep by 11 pm. At 10 pm, your Internet router is switched off. That takes care of temptations from the Internet. Then your phone is switched off, so no more sneaking one more level of Candy Crush. With no phone to look at, you must occupy yourself with something. Start with massaging your hair or body with essential oils, followed by a 10 minute meditation. Read a relaxing book, sitting, or better yet, lying down on your bed.

By 11, you should be yawning and be ready to sleep. In fact, your relaxation momentum will make sure that you find getting up and switching on the Internet and the phone and then starting your favourite app or game to be a tedious task. Good night. Sweet dreams. Need to use an alarm to wake up? Don’t use your phone, get a plain old alarm clock.

Tip 5: Believe fully in the cause and love the process

The four tips above are meant to build a system that makes you get started, persevere and improve yourself towards a desire / goal. However, remember that the desire must come from deep within you and that you must badly want the change you seek. If you start the goal for someone else or simply because that goal is in vogue this season, then chances are that you will continuously let life happen, fail to prioritise your system and slip away.

Do not begin the routine to study for MBA just because all your friends are doing it. If you do not badly want to be an executive or if you do not deeply believe in the study and practice of management, then it won’t be your cup of tea (it’s certainly not mine). Don’t try to learn French just because someone told you that it is a romantic language. Pronouncing and spelling French words correctly is incredibly hard for a beginner and unless you are truly interested in France, its lifestyle and its culture, you will lose interest quickly.

The important point is to know when to stop, when to get off the treadmill and to stop being miserable.

Momentum for infrequent events

The above five tips work beautifully for goals that you can break up into rituals over days, months and even years. What about one-off or infrequent events like writing testimonials, cleaning up your messy home after a long trip or a trek to a 12000 feet mountain? These too need momentum from start to finish. Which of the above tips do you apply and how do you apply them?

Tip #4 about engineering your environment works wonders here. The less cluttered your environment, higher your chances of gaining momentum and completing your task with lesser interruptions, maybe even in one go.
I always do this during a trek. If you drop your backpack, sit down and take rest, your body builds inertia and will not want to resume walking. As a worst case, your legs will cool down too rapidly and develop cramps. I NEVER sit before I reach the camp for the day. I am always ambling around keeping my legs hyperactive with my backpack still on my shoulders and ready to go. The only things that indicate that I am taking a break is that I sip on water and take a few photos. I create an environment that cues to my body that I am READY.

Tip #1 about starting small can get you started here too. If you have been putting off writing that letter for too long, you should just take a pen and paper, sit down to write and resolve to write 3 sentences. Chances are that you will get into the flow and won’t stop at only 3 sentences.

Tip #3 about improving what you have done does well too. Let’s take the letter above and imagine that you have written your promised three sentences. Chances are that you enjoyed what you did and want to make it better. And soon you find yourself writing a very good letter, spending more time on it.

James Clear talks about another genius tip called the 2 minute rule. If a task takes less than two minutes, then start it NOW. This is often true for errands such as washing your dishes, putting your clothes in the washing machine and the like. The body and mind can be particularly resistant to start short tasks and will postpone them for later. But if you tell yourself that you will be back in two minutes, then your resistance will be weakened.

When NOT to use momentum

We all know those cases when we shouldn’t be lingering on an activity for too long. I will just leave you with some dangerous statements that indicated that you have tipped from momentum to addiction / inertia.

“Ohh I am sleepy. I’ll just hit the snooze for 5 more minutes”. Soon your 5 minutes will be one hour. If you postpone your very first task of the day, which is to wake up at your promised time, you are setting up a lousy day which starts with failure.
“Just 3 more episodes and I will have watched the entire season in a single day!”.
“One more rasgulla won’t do much harm!”.
“Wow man, 100kmph really looks so cool, with the world blurring by. Let me try 120kmph. Wheeeee!”.
“Look, I just scrolled down to this message I posted on my timeline 5 years ago. Makes me nostalgic!”.

Plus, there is one more context when you should not use momentum. If you are strength training in your gym, workouts must be done as slowly as possible and you must not race through them with speed. If you lift too fast, the first part of your lift carries the momentum over to the later part and you are not working your muscle during that time. And if you lower your weights too fast, you are effectively using gravity to do the job and not your muscles.


Humans resist change and this behaviour can be used in your favour rather than against you. Momentum or inertia. The choice is yours to make. How have you used momentum in your life to sail through your activities? Let me know in your comments. May the momentum be with you.

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Harikrishna Natrajan

Unleashing life's full potential

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