The Psychology of Inertia, a Double Edged Sword

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In high school physics class (not psychology), we learned about the Law of Inertia. Double edged sword? Few of us would have even known what that meant at the time. We certainly wouldn’t have thought to apply it to the statement we were expected to memorize. Whether the principle, first stated by Newton (he of gravity vs. apple fame), was dumbed down in the text book or simply simplified in my own mind, who knows?

Either way, if we knew the following, we’d be able to pass the pop quiz:

The Law of Inertia states that an object at rest will tend to remain at rest while an object in motion will tend to remain in motion.

Only later–much, much later–did it begin to dawn on me that a great deal of human activity (and/or lack of activity) is based on that law. Here are a couple of examples.

1. Your 300 pound teenaged couch potato son refuses to move off the sofa, staring glassy eyed and motionless at the TV, unlikely to shift a muscle unless an outside force acts on him. What outside force? A Mom who refuses to bring him his meals on a TV tray but requires him to actually come to the table for dinner, perhaps, or a Dad who ignores all the politically correct parenting guidelines and blasts him outa there with a stick of dynamite.

2. A home invasion gang, having no intention of stopping its latest crime spree until the members are either arrested or shot dead by either police or armed homeowners.

Ah, yes. There are entire career fields based on the Law of Inertia, aren’t there? What is the number one thing any law enforcement officer is required to do? You’re right! A cop is in the business of stopping people who are in motion and intending to stay in motion, stealing or killing or raping or computer hacking or Wiki Leaking or shooting up heroin or whatever society as a whole doesn’t consider acceptable behavior.

Well…so what, you ask?

Good question. And as it happens, I have an answer:

He (or she) who masters the psychology of inertia in his (or her) personal life becomes the master of his (or her) own destiny–but such mastery is a double edged sword, and a razor edged sword at that.

And likewise, he (or she) who fails to attain such mastery is…pretty much behind the eight ball. It’s essential to harness the power of inertia rather than letting the power of inertia harness you.


Hey, it took me a while to figure out, too. The power of inertia exerts an almost unholy influence over my life. When I’m sleeping, I don’t want to get up, ever (inertia). When I’m working at the computer, I don’t want to quit and go to bed, ever (inertia).

If something is unpleasant enough, then of course I want to see a bit of change, right now…but for many of the hours in the average day, I detest change. The double edged sword aspect means that this tendency in my psyche (and the psyches of many others) can be either beneficial or detrimental.

Not liking to quit once I’m rolling on the computer does allow me to write and publish a post (like this one) every single night of the year for years on end. That’s a good thing, the sword’s helpful edge. However, a fair number of my posts are published by midnight or shortly thereafter. On the surface, there’s no visible reason why I couldn’t call it a night once the post is published and proofread one final time, allowing my head to hit the pillow by, say, 1:30 a.m. Yet it almost never does so. Instead, Computer Inertia keeps me at the keyboard until 4:00 a.m. or so, sometimes even later than that. This morning, I never went to bed at all. Rather than turn the computer off and begin wrapping up a few necessary chores, I’ll play Hearts on the computer. Cruise a prison pen pal site, even though Pam and I aren’t seeking any new pen pals at the moment. Pore over the stats page for this site several times in the space of a single hour. Whatever it takes to keep me from having to change gears.

And that’s not necessarily a good thing. At the least, it’s inefficient. At its worst, it’s potentially deadly, leaving me to face a new day with far too little sleep more times than I can count.

Ah, but the benefits! It is this same inertial tendency that has allowed me to produce a new post nearly every night of the year for these past five years or so, to build a complete house by myself in 2010, and even help keep my wife alive in her never ending battle against myriad disabilities. Definitely, the beneficial edge of the sword, the ability to stick with a project till the bitter end, does have its uses.

Is there a point to these mental musings? Another great question.

The answer: Probably not. Those among us who will master (or have already mastered) the Law of Inertia tend to find their own ways; this page is not likely to add a jot or a tittle to the results. In the end, it’s all about knowing when to Stop and when to Go, human psychology from moment to moment.

And never mind the observation that yes, inertial power has kept me at the keyboard one more time, slumped asleep in my chair for nearly two hours before I could wake up enough to finish typing the last few paragraphs of this post yet refusing to change gears, refusing to get up and walk the thirty feet to my bedroom. It’s closing in on 3:00 a.m. one more time, and when the alarm clock goes off a few hours from now, I’ll wish to smash it with a hammer as usual. Once at the computer, I hate to quit typing. Once in bed, I hate to get up. Some things, it seem, never change.

Have I mastered the Law of Inertia…or has it mastered me? I’m not sure. I do know that like the Subaru in the photo at the top of the page, once I’m in motion, I tend to stay in motion, yet once at rest I tend to stay at rest.

You do the math.