Entrepreneurial Inertia

One of the concepts I teach my coaching clients is entrepreneurial inertia. I use this term to explain two of the most common tendencies that entrepreneurs have that make us a mystery ( or completely annoying) to others. I made up the expression, but the inertia part is actually a physics phenomenon you are probably aware of. Inertia is a force that has two opposites. If I was a middle school science teacher, I would explain it like this: a body at rest remains at rest until an outside force acts upon it AND a body in motion remains in motion until an outside force acts upon it.

If you see where I am going with this, you can skip to the head of the class. If you're not quite there, stay with me. Foot tapping, impatient for me to get to the actual point. I see you. Breathe, look at the window, check your apple watch for messages and come back to me. We're getting there, I promise. Entrepreneurial Inertia explains our evil twins, our chronic procrastination and our hyperfocus. Think about it. When we are procrastinating, we are a body at rest, sometimes quite literally, on the couch, bingeing on Netflix instead of writing a sales letter. The outside force that acts upon us, propels us up and off that couch is usually something urgent. Depending on how deep our procrastination habit is, we might jump up to answer the doorbell (hello, Amazon Prime!) but then sink right back down again, as soon as we've signed for the delivery. For others, just being on our feet is enough of a push to get us to rush toward our laptop and start hammering away at the keys.

Some of us need a bigger incentive to get out of the “body at rest” side of inertia, like a visit from Mom who just texted she's in the neighborhood and will be stopping by in 20 minutes. We wouldn't want her to see us lounging around while great big piles of stinking laundry wait to be done, would we? The bottom line is that the "body at rest" inertia will remain in effect until the outside force that acts upon us is sufficient to overcome our current level of procrastination. In college, I would wait until the night before to start a 10-page term paper, but if it was a 20-page paper, I had to start sooner, but not by much. My narrative was 'I work best under pressure.' This seemed true to me at the time that I failed to recognize how much unnecessary stress I was experiencing. I also failed to learn any other way.

This went on for years until I finally stopped deceiving myself and reluctantly admitted that often my done-at-the-very-last-minute-work was adequate, but not my best. I was cheating myself by relying on inertia to get myself to take action. The outside force was almost always the combination of a hard deadline and the consequence I wasn't willing to experience, whether it was a failed exam or a missed plane. Eventually, I got sick of myself barely making it on time, and always leaving out something that would have made my results even better. Late fees on credit cards, forgotten eyeglasses or medications on a long-distance trip, too many belated greetings to friends and family to count. The truth is that I had accepted my own bullshit and had gotten used to the feeling of disappointing myself and others. I had come to see it as inevitable and unavoidable, so naturally, I did nothing to change.

What I finally figured out was that if I could move the needle myself by creating an outside force that would act upon me when I was procrastinating, I could begin to work with my inertia more effectively. By this time, I had learned that there are four things that stimulate a person with these tendencies to take action, four dopamine drivers, as I call them. They are: interest, challenge, novelty, and urgency. If "body at rest' inertia was relying on the urgency to get me to do what needed to be done, then what if I could manufacture one of the other drivers instead? Well, this turned out to be exactly what I needed. By figuring out a way to make the task more interesting, challenging or novel, I could get that dopamine download that would reward me and I'd keep going.

Believe it or not, you can make doing laundry more interesting by stimulating your natural curiosity. Try sorting by fabric type ( separating the natural fabrics like wool and cotton from the synthetics like rayon and polyester). To make it more challenging, set a countdown timer and see if you can beat the clock on folding your shirts and matching socks. For novelty, try imaging yourself as an alien or someone from a developing country that had never seen a washer and dryer. Spend a moment exploring them from that fresh perspective. Once you've gotten your dopamine from that exercise, you'll be on your way to clean undies, guaranteed.

Now, for the flip side of entrepreneurial inertia, a body in motion. This is how I look at hyperfocus. Once we get going on something, which oddly enough, might even be something we first procrastinated about, we can keep going. And going. And going. Missing appointments, keeping friends, family, and co-workers waiting for us. Sometimes forgetting to eat, hydrate, and move. I've had clients who confessed barely making it to the toilet in time because they were so hyperfocused on whatever it was they were doing that they completely ignored increasingly urgent warnings that nature was calling.

You know what I'm talking about and I'm sure you have your own personal hyperfocus stories, whether it's staying up all night watching one YouTube video after another or working on a sewing project you just couldn't put down until it was finished or you couldn't take it any further. People who don't experience this think hyperfocus is a superpower, and it can be, when we are able to control what we are hyperfocusing on. This takes discipline and training, otherwise, our hyperfocus can be like a laser beam. It can be a tool or a weapon, depending on how it's used. Once I would get into hyperfocus, I was truly a body in motion. I would tell myself I 'couldn't' stop, but the truth was, I didn't want to.

Hyperfocus feels awesome for two reasons - we are getting a steady drip of dopamine, like an IV, instead of our usual state where dopamine is low, and because we so often feel lethargic, unmotivated and moody, being in hyperfocus restores our confidence and belief in our own abilities to succeed and win. So, why the hell would you want to interrupt or interfere with that, you ask? One reason. When you put all your eggs in one basket, all you have is eggs. And if you drop the basket, you've got nothing.

OK, let me stop being clever with the analogies and metaphors, even though I do love them, and I hope some of you do too. The reason why we'd want to learn how to shift gears when we are in a state of hyperfocus ( the 'body in motion' version of entrepreneurial inertia) is because of the opportunity cost. When we are hyperfocusing, the only thing benefitting from it is whatever we are hyperfocusing on. Now if it's a presentation we are giving at work the next day, maybe that's justifiable, but what if we put it off for two weeks, and today is our anniversary and we promised our partner to go out for a nice dinner? Here is where both sides of the inertia equation, the procrastination, followed by hyperfocus have a cost. The things we miss out on, the people we disappoint, the wear and tear on our self-esteem. No shit, these things add up over time.

It really is hard to get yourself out of a state of hyperfocus, once you're already in it. Believe me, I know. A better strategy is to prevent yourself from getting into one, to begin with, by adopting some simple strategies that won't come naturally to your brain, but your life will be so much better because of them, you'll be motivated to make them a regular part of your lifestyle and self management. Parkinson's Law states 'work expands to fill the time allocated for its completion.' This means if you give yourself eight hours to do a project, it will take eight hours, maybe more.

If you tell yourself you have to get it done in six hours, schedule those six hours, remove distractions and eliminate interruptions, you will amaze yourself by getting it done in six. Break up those six hours into a minimum of 4 sprints, with breaks in between. Set timers, and reminders. Drink lots of water, if you find yourself ignoring the buzzes and pings. If all else fails, use your bladder to get you up and out of the chair, using Mother Nature and your natural avoidance to wetting your pants to create breaks for you.

Over time, with practice and forgiveness for not doing it perfectly and sometimes forgetting to do it altogether, you will learn to manage your entrepreneurial inertia. I still procrastinate, but so much less than I used to. And, I now hyperfocus when I want to, not because I'm unaware of myself and what I'm doing. I'm not perfect, far from it. But I'm determined to make the most of my entrepreneurial inertia. It's my natural tendency, so I might as well work with it.


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