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Coaching Great Leaders
The Inertia Predicament

By Marshall Goldsmith

When I ask people, "What really matters in your life?" answers based on the following five themes are generally given: health, wealth, relationships, happiness, and meaning. While in the past I have focused on relationships, my focus of late is happiness and meaning.

It's  interesting to me that as much as everyone claims to want happiness and meaning, there is a paradoxical catch that blocks us at every turn. Here it is:

  • Our default response in life is not to experience happiness.
  • Our default response in life is not to experience meaning.
  • Our default response in life is to experience inertia.

In other words, our most common everyday process—the thing we do more often than anything else—is continue to do what we're already doing.

Don't believe me? If you've ever come to the end of a TV show and then passively continued watching the next show on the same channel, you know the power of inertia. You only have to press a button on the remote (an expenditure of less than one calorie of energy) to change the channel. Yet many of us cannot even do that, much less turn the thing off. We continue doing what we're doing even when we no longer want to do it.

Inertia is the reason I can say the following with absolute certainty about your immediate future: The most reliable predictor of what you will be doing five minutes from now is what you are doing now. If you're reading now, you'll probably be reading five minutes from now. The same is true for almost any other daily activity. If you are drinking or exercising or shopping or surfing the Internet now, you will probably be drinking or exercising or shopping or surfing the Internet five minutes from now. Take a moment to let that sink in and weigh the statement against your own life.

We carry that bad mood from our work to our home. We carry that bad mood from our home to our work. Inertia is an incredibly reliable short-term predictor of future behavior.

Once you appreciate this predicament, you will become aware of its paralyzing effect on every aspect of your life, not just the mindless routines of eating or watching TV, but also things that really matter—such as the level of happiness and meaning in your life—and you will become more thoughtful about turning things around.

How do you break the cycle of inertia? It's not a matter of exerting heroic willpower. All that's required is the use of a simple discipline, and it comes in the form of an experiment I want you to try.

As you go through your day, I want you to evaluate every activity on a 1 to 10 scale (with 10 being the highest score) on two simple questions:

  1.  How much long-term benefit or meaning did I experience from this activity?
  2.  How much short-term satisfaction or happiness did I experience in this activity?

Simply record the activities that make up your day, both at work and at home, and then evaluate each activity by applying these two questions.

There is no "right" answer. There is no acceptable range of scoring. No one else can answer the questions for you. It's your experience of happiness and meaning. Give it your best shot. Don't "think it to death." Just take a couple of seconds and record your scores. At the end of the day you will have a chart that tracks your experience of happiness and meaning.

If you do this, you may end up with much more than a score.

This simple ‘two question' method can be applied to any activity. Imagine that you're about to attend a one-hour, mandatory meeting. Your initial mind-set is that the meeting will be a boring waste of time. But on this occasion, you flash forward an hour into the future and ask yourself two questions: How much long-term benefit or meaning did I experience from this activity? How much short-term satisfaction or happiness did I experience in this activity? Remember, it's your life. If the meeting makes you feel miserable and empty, it's your misery and emptiness. So try to make the best of the situation rather than defaulting to the role of victim. You have two options: Option A is to attend the meeting and be miserable (and probably assist other attendees in being miserable too). Option B is to make the meeting more meaningful and enjoyable. You might be able to do this by observing your colleagues more closely than ever, or by asking the attendees a question that you've been dying to ask, or by creatively generating an idea that becomes the inspiration for future progress. Your options are not as limited or limiting as you think. But you may never even consider these options without first posing the two questions.

All you're doing is changing how you approach any activity. You are changing your mind-set. You're no longer defaulting to inertia—i.e., continuing to do what you've been doing. You're electing to be more mindful, more alert, and more awake. Remember, this is how you can overcome the pernicious effects of inertia, or mindless activity. This is how you can solve the predicament of inertia. This is how you can regain control of your future and create positive change.


Marshall Goldsmith, MBA, PhD, is a world authority on helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting behavioral change. His executive coaching expertise has been highlighted in Forbes, Fast Company, and Business Week. He is the WSJ and NYT best-selling author of What Got You Here Won't Get You There (Hyperion, 2007). His most recent book is Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, and How to Get It Back If You Lose It. Learn more about Marshall in the WABC Coach Directory.
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