Change is hard.
Yet how much of our unwillingness to change can be chalked up to preferring the status quo as compared to an innate inability to become motivated?
This question lies at the heart of the cognitive bias known as inertia.
And its implications affect many aspects of your life—including your bank account.
An object in motion…
The term “inertia” is predominantly relevant to physics: an object in uniform motion (or at rest) tends to remain in this state until an external force acts upon it—Newton’s first law of physics.
Like objects, mindsets tend to remain unchanged, which brings us to psychological inertia. Minds don’t usually change unless forced to—and even then, often with resistance.
Evidence of this bias exists everywhere. You likely have a morning routine, a particular commute to work that never changes. The stores where you buy groceries and home goods are set. You’ve been with your bank for decades because, really, they’re all the same—right?
Sure, novelty bias kicks in on occasion. You purposefully get lost returning from work in order to explore a new neighborhood. You finally decide to check out a new supermarket. You discover a digital wallet that will make your money work for you and sign up.
In general, “good enough” solidifies our routines. Inertia is such a powerful force that marketing professors David Gal and Derek Rucker believe it influences status quo bias and the endowment effect more than the usual suspect, loss aversion. They write,
Gal’s inertia account states that when people are indifferent between options, they should favor inaction over action because doing something requires a psychological motive. Alternatively, a preference for inaction might occur because individuals will tend to favor options that reduce processing and transaction costs. Other explanations for a propensity toward inaction are that errors of commission tend to involve greater regret than errors of omission and that individuals might rely on an ‘if ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ heuristic.
Inaction isn’t limited to individuals. Inertia plagues companies as well.
Two famous examples of corporate inertia serve as cautionary tales.
In 2000, Netflix’s founders offered to sell their startup to video behemoth Blockbuster for $50 million. Not only did Blockbuster refuse, they didn’t really see DVD-by-mail—or later, streaming video—as a threat to their business model. Now, this November, Netflix will release a comedy series about the last Blockbuster store in existence (which still exists).
If you go from 9,000 stores to one store because you failed to adjust your business model, you’ve been struck by inertia.
Likewise, in 2012, photography giant Kodak filed for bankruptcy. This story is even more daunting given that a Kodak engineer designed the first digital camera in 1975. Regardless, the film giant laughed it off. In fairness, they did invest billions in digital cameras early on; they just couldn’t compete with digital-first companies in the aughts.
According to the Harvard Business Review, Kodak also blew past the biggest warning sign.
The real disruption occurred when cameras merged with phones, and people shifted from printing pictures to posting them on social media and mobile phone apps. And Kodak totally missed that.
To survive bankruptcy, Kodak sold numerous patents, including to companies like Apple and Facebook—businesses responsible for its demise. In 2020, the company pivoted to creating pharmaceuticals. So perhaps Kodak did shake off inertia, though not without serious growing pains.
Proactivity is one of the few resources we have to overcome inertia. According to psychotherapist Hugh Clark, this requires applying the 3Cs: context, communication, and commiseration. While his paper applies to inertia in higher education, he believes the blueprint can be applied broadly as a means for getting unstuck.
Context. While change is often difficult, not all change is negative, and some people are open to it. Clark writes that people are influenced both by organizational context, such as power structure and the nature of inter-company relationships, as well as the individual’s social roles, beliefs, and emotions. From an organizational perspective, creating an inclusive and transparent culture that openly discusses change can help alleviate the burden of inertia.
Communication and Commiseration. Clark buckets these together as a “double strategy,” having listed a number of existential threats (disengagement; polarization; projection; sabotage) to provide context around the difficulties of organizational change.
Clark writes that humans face a paradoxical challenge: on one hand, we’re designed for forward movement and growth; on the other, we’re victims of the innate cognitive forces of inertia, stagnation, and deterioration. Trying to effect change while grappling with this paradox is the ultimate organizational—and extrapolating from his paper, personal—challenge.
Therefore, Clark advises using the following six guiding “communication and commiseration” strategies that both support change implementation and combat resistance.
- Get on the balcony, or use your leverage to speak to the issue. Don’t avoid discussion of change, but rather get ahead of it—loudly, from a balcony.
- Identify the adaptive challenge. Clark advises to “sell the problem before the solution,” or make the problem understandable so that everyone can recognize why change is necessary.
- Regulate distress. It’s never a good idea to bury emotions. Change is naturally going to evoke a number of them, including distress, feeling criticized, and change fatigue. By demonstrating that you’re aware of these challenges, everyone aligns in a shared struggle—a much more effective strategy for dealing with the inevitable.
- Maintain disciplined attention. Most importantly, focus on what can be achieved instead of what cannot be done. This empowers individuals within larger organizations, but it’s also important advice to individuals struggling with inertia in their own lives.
- Give the work back to the people. Use bottom-up principles such as listening to a variety of opinions, encouraging creativity, and empowering everyone to play their role. By setting the tone for the change ahead, everyone will feel ready—and engaged, since they’re an agent in the process.
- Protect voices of leadership from below. Bottom line: everyone has a voice. So listen to them all. Everyone in a company should feel included.
Again, this organizational framework provides insights into individuals struggling to overcome inertia as well. The old maxim, “the only constant is change,” is a guiding mantra.
We might not like change, but when we step back and take the long view while recognizing that we have a role to play in some capacity, we can empower ourselves to make better decisions about our lives.