Saturday, February 28, 2009

An Intentional Life

Isaac Newton's first law of motion states that "An object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion (at the same speed and in the same direction) unless acted upon by an unbalanced force." Basically objects tend to keep doing whatever they've been doing unless something causes them to change. This principle is often referred to as inertia.

Prior to Newton, people believed that objects tended towards a state of rest. If they were in motion, they would eventually stop. However, Newton pointed out that this simply wasn't the case.

Newton and Human Behavior: Applied Inertia
I've been thinking about how Newton's first law of motion applies to how we live our lives. For the most part, we tend to do the things we do today, simply because we did them yesterday. We wake up in the same house. We go to the same job. We hang out with the same people. We eat the same food, or at least from the same set of foods. And so on.

There's a certain practicality to this. Changing houses frequently can consume a lot of time and money. Showing up at work randomly will likely lead to unemployment. Constantly changing the people with whom I associate will probably never lead to lasting relationships.

As we grow older, the inertia in our lives increases on both a macro level and a micro level. On a macro level (big patterns), our world view tends to solidify. Few people tend to dramatically change their perspectives on politics, religion or money past their 20's. On a micro level (small patterns), our reactions (thoughts, emotions, actions) to different triggers become more and more predictable. It's not that we stop; it's simply that we continue in the same way, day after day after day.

Even people who seem to change all the time, may be simply acting on inertia. People who jump from career to career or from relationship to relationship or from location to location, may appear to be changing their lives, when in fact, they're simply doing the inertia thing.

Newton pointed out that changes to an object's speed and direction occur when acted on by an "unbalanced force". For example, I can change the speed of direction of a shopping cart by pushing it from behind. However, if Iris starts pushing the same shopping cart from the front (balancing my force), the cart won't move.

What's really cool about this, is that the amount of force required to change inertia is really, really, really small, as long as nothing is balancing it. It's hard to see this on earth where we have hidden forces like gravity and friction to balance our efforts, but in space, you could change the course of a huge object with just your little finger.

This also seems to be the case in our lives. We tend only to change when something knocks us off our course. Road construction can cause us to commute along a different route than we do 99.9% of the time. The loss of a job will trigger us to look for something new. A drawn out war and troubled economy can cause significant change in our political views. A diagnosis of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and potential heart attack may cause the biggest couch potato to begin dieting and working out.

We don't however change when acted upon by smaller forces. For example, political discussions at our local coffee shop serve only to entrench the participants in their preexisting views. Why? Because we're completely capable of balancing these external forces with our internal resistance to change.

Mark's First Law of Human Motion
So, Mark's corollary to Newton's first law of motion is "People will do the same things they've done, hold the same beliefs they've held, and react in the same ways they've reacted unless something really major happens to change them."

The more I look around me, the more I see that this is the case. It's kind of depressing. So, I'm going to modify my law a bit to include the line "or, they decide to change them."

So, the full version of Mark's First Law of Human Motion is now...

"People will do the same things they've done, hold the same beliefs they've held, and react in the same ways they've reacted unless something really major happens to change them, or, unless they decide to change."

Inertia Breaking Activities
In the summer of 2003, I spent eight weeks in a program that was kind of like summer camp for adults. One of the things we started to do every day was to set an intention for ourselves for that day. In the context of this little discussion, I realize that the intentions were not on the order of "I intend to pick up the laundry" or "I intend to eat steak tonight". Instead, the intentions were inertia-breaking intentions. For example, "I intend to actively love and accept a specific person with whom I have a lot of issues today." Or, "I intend to ask three questions of each person I encounter today, rather than talking about myself." The more clear and specific the question, and the more tightly the question was coupled to a fundamental change in ourselves, the better.

Not only did we set our intentions in the morning, but we also shared them with one another and then checked in with each other in the evening to see how we'd done. This process of setting, declaring and following up on intentions proved to be an amazing force of change.

As I'm writing this, I'm getting kind of excited about the thought of reinvigorating this practice of setting, declaring, pursuing and then reporting on daily intentions. Maybe we'll add a daily intentions page to Iris' site.

So, what do you think? What's the level of inertia in your life? How does inertia manifest itself? Are you a same thing everyday inertia type, or are you a change everything regularly inertia type?

If you've managed to read this far, I'd like to invite you to join me in a little inertia breaking experiment.

  1. Find someone (or more than one person) with whom you can share and review you intentions.

  2. For one week, get together every morning (over coffee, by phone, by Skype, by email) and share your intentions with each other

  3. In the evenings, get together again to share how it went

  4. Share your experiences of inertia-breaking intention setting in the comments section of this blog

I'd love to hear from you!


  1. love this idea. 3 weeks ago I talked to a support group about changing the lunchtime talk away from talking negatively about kids we teach to more positive topics. I usually walk late into lunch and the discussions have already begun and then I find myself tongue-tied to change the course of conversation...obviously I did not set my intention in any real or concrete way. I'm going to follow your suggestions starting Mon. & I'll get back on Fri.! MK

  2. Hi Mark,

    I love what you wrote! There is one thing I am not so sure that I agree with though. You wrote: "We don't however change when acted upon by smaller forces." Yes, it does seem that "bigger" forces would encourage more radical change however, there is a proverb (that I am choosing to not recall verbatim right now) that says something along the lines of even the smallest drop of water can send a million ripples through the pond. I think that if we develop a keen awareness of the intention for all of our daily actions, we may see more than we think is there. Maybe, as you stated, that conversation in the coffee shop was just a conversation to re-instill already existing beliefs but even that, I believe, has an effect. Maybe you left feeling the same way you always did but maybe one of your friends sat quietly and pondered a new perspective that you didn't know he had etc... I would love to hear feedback. I hope you and Iris are well.


  3. Hope you guys are putting a book together....

    great idea for this muddy March time... "inertia breaking"


  4. Hi Winden,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment and kind words. We're doing great!

    I think we actually agree in regard to our capacity for change. I believe that we have the ability to change with even the slightest input, if we're open to it and willing.

    I also agree that my observations and assessments of the effect of any discussion are quite limited both in scope and depth. I can never really know what someone walks away with. In fact, quite frequently, people seem to resist the most right before they change. I know I do.

    Nonetheless, I believe that, unless we set an intention to do otherwise, we tend towards resistance to change. On the one hand, this is really useful as it "keeps us grounded". On the other hand, well, there's the inertia thing.

    I guess the art of this would be staying completely grounded in who we are, what we believe and what we want, while simultaneously being completely open to our new experiences and input from others. Open, but grounded.



  5. I think I'm a "change everything regularly" inertia type, and I tend to do it dramatically. I just broke up with my girlfriend of three years, but did it with such finality that even I am recoiling from the shock of my actions.

    She was about to buy the plane ticket to come back to live with me, but I pulled the rug out from under her and broke it off. I literally haven't talked to her since. I blocked her phone numbers and mailed all her stuff back in one big box (including all the pictures and mementos of us).

    She was desperately calling from different numbers, leaving countless voicemails, pleading to talk to me and understand why, but I completely shut her out. She was emailing too, even after I sent my "last email" to her declaring that I didn't want anything we had talked about before: taking a couples course together, getting married, moving into a place we could call our own close to her family, and having kids. I even wrote that I didn't want to be friends with her.

    The "Why?" is so F'n complicated. I realize that I probably need professional help at this point. (Are you available for dialogues, Mark?) Of course, you know about my last dramatic exit... the Option "chainsaw massacre". I still judge myself harshly for that.

    I've always been aware that underneath the crazy decisions to cut myself off from established relationships AND jobs is a motivation to change myself, a craving to "start over", a hope to "get it right this time", and maybe even to create the perfect relationship or job.

    So it seems that I don't rely on outside forces to prompt change in my life. I just make choices (usually in anger) that sets off a bomb to disorient everyone involved so I can flee and get as far away from the mess I made as possible. I even do it in a way which pretty much guarantees no one will want to have anything to do with me afterwards.

    So what am I getting at here? I guess it comes back to "WHY?" What I am curious about is why we have to change and grow in the first place?! What's so wrong with inertia, with things staying the same? Does it all come back to this "Not Good Enough" belief that humanity seems obsessed with?

    I constantly feel this burning inside me. That I'll never be good enough, accomplish anything worthwhile, that my life doesn't make a difference, that I'm a nobody, that I do more damage than good, that nobody really cares (because everyone is really just doing what they do for themselves, including me, which I judge).

    So, yeah, I have some issues. Issue Inertia... And often I feel done with it. I just want the whole thing to stop. Change, Life, Love, relationships, work... It's all too painful. It just feels like a constant struggle.

    Any advice, feedback, or questions would be appreciated.

    Thanks for creating this blog.

  6. Nathan......though it seems to feel like you've crashed and burned, and everywhich direction you attempt wrought with only more and more painfulness..........however, deeper down, i'm sure you realize, 'this too will pass,' and the value of looking for the value/golden lining/ are the soloist, and you've proven to yourself just how capable you can be at finding better answers, simply by asking better questions. There is much here for you, awaiting your discovery. many are hugging you, appreciating your lite..... BW

  7. Nathan......though it seems to feel like you've crashed and burned, and everywhich direction you attempt wrought with only more and more painfulness..........however, deeper down, i'm sure you realize, 'this too will pass,' and the value of looking for the value/golden lining/ are the soloist, and you've proven to yourself just how capable you can be at finding better answers, simply by asking better questions. There is much here for you, awaiting your discovery. many are hugging you, appreciating your lite..... BW

  8. Hey Nate,

    I posted something yesterday in response to your comment, but it didn't seem to take. So, I'll give it another shot.

    First of all, I think it would be great for you to get together with someone and conduct a couple of dialogues about this. I totally believe that you have the answers to your own questions and that you can figure this one out.

    That said, you sure do have an exceptional skill at blowing things up. Since you're pretty clearly "doing this" and it's not "happening to you", then one obvious question seems to be, "why do you blow things up?" It would probably be useful to look at this on a case by case basis rather than trying to figure it out generally.

    One question that comes to mind in each case would be, "what were you afraid would have happened, if you didn't blow up the situation or the relationship?" Were you anticipating being judged or disapproved of? Were you afraid that you were taking on more than you could handle? Were you afraid that, if you didn't do it big, someone might talk you into another course of action? Were you afraid that you might be settling for less that you could get?

    You say that you make decisions, but it also seems that you don't feel powerful enough to carry them out, so you create circumstances that force you to change. Were you looking to create a situation in which you had no other choices, thereby making it, "not your fault?"

    Another question that comes to mind is this: "Even if humanity is obsessed with 'not good enough', what's that got to do with you being obsessed with 'not good enough?'" You might want to put the rest of the world down and check in with yourself.

    What also occurred to me was your view of growth and change as mandatory or good. The implication being that, if you're not growing and changing, you're insufficient or bad. How about viewing growth and change just as something you want or don't want?

    For example, I imagine that learning to fly was a growth experience for you. I also imagine that you didn't wake up one morning thinking, "I really suck and I'm really a bad person because I can't fly a plane." I imagine that you thought it would be fun or useful.

    Imagine if you brought all your self-judgment, anticipation of failure, and fear of what others thought to your flying experience. It would likely compromise your flying skills pretty significantly. I'm hoping this isn't your flying experience. Still, it seems like you're bringing this to other aspects of your life.

    Nate I think you're an amazing guy and I'm confident you can figure this one out. I know there are a lot of great mentors out there who would be happy help you through this.

    Believing in you,


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