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Fight Downhill Battles: Let Laziness and Inertia Make You More Productive
Did you know that you can cancel a magazine subscription at any time? Return unwanted Book-of-the-Month Club selections? Cancel unused credit cards? Put an end to unwanted junk mail?
You probably did know that, and yet you still receive magazines you don’t read anymore, have a stack of books or CDs from membership clubs that you’ve never even opened, pay yearly fees on credit cards you neither use nor want, and open your mailbox several times a week to a flood of flyers, catalogs, and local papers — all of which go straight to the trash.
Why is that? There’s almost no work involved in doing any of these things — a phone call, a “return to sender” scrawled across the package, maybe a letter, and you’re free! The time, money, and hassle you would save would be more than the cost of a few minutes on the phone.
The sticking point, though, is the “almost” in “almost no work involved”. We humans have a tremendous capacity for keeping on doing whatever we’re already doing — even when it doesn’t make sense anymore. Remember your physics? An object in motion will tend to stay in motion — unless acted on by an outside force.
That’s inertia. In behavioral terms, it means that once we settle into a course of action, it becomes harder and harder to change it. All that little stuff, especially, is so easily procrastinated, so easily forgotten, so unlikely to be subject to the kind of outside forces that might lead us to make a change, that lots of companies have created successful business models out of it.
Don’t believe me? Take a look around your neighborhood and see how many yards have more than one newspaper sitting in them. Maybe your own yard has a few days’ worth of newspaper buildup. Every day you or your neighbors think “I really need to cancel that newspaper subscription” — and then they move on. Three months later, the bill comes. And is paid! And the cycle repeats itself…
I’m not going to tell you how to break the cycle. You know how — sit down, make a list of all the little annoyances in your life that could easily be stopped, and spend an hour or two stopping them. No big deal.
What interests me more, though, is the basic behavior itself — and how we can turn it to our benefit. An easy example comes to mind: automatic bill payment. Once you set up automatic payments, it becomes more of a hassle to stop them than to adapt to them — which is the whole point. Your bills get paid by inertia.
What are some other ways that your innate laziness can work for you?
- Automatic savings: 10% of your paycheck goes into a high-yield account with withdrawal penalties. Get used to it.
- Set your alarm clock 20 minutes earlier: Yeah, like you’ll remember to change it. Too bad, you have to wake up now.
- Subscribe to groceries: Amazon has a Subscribe and Save program that allows you to set up a subscription to common household goods (diapers, toilet paper, toiletries, non-perishable foods, etc.). You set up how many you want and how often, and they bill you when each new order is shipped. Plus, subscribed items are 15% off. Not everything is a great deal — your local grocery store might still be cheaper for a lot of things — but for things you need on a regular basis, a subscription can save you some last-minute dashes to the store (and shorten your regular shopping trips, since you won’t need to buy as much). And canceling a subscription is just enough work that you probably won’t.
- Accountability partners: This is a good one for people working towards long-term goals — find someone to ask you regularly how you’re doing. Someone you won’t be able to lie to easily. It will eventually be more stress to not do something than to just do it. And won’t that be awful?
- Habits, of course: Building any positive behavior into a habit — whether it’s writing first thing in the morning or going to the gym after work or always leaving your keys by the front door — is a great use of inertia. Once established, it becomes harder to break your habit than to just do it.
It seems to me there is a great deal of power in inertia, if we could figure out how to take advantage of it. All too often we get stuck in negative inertia, those ruts that prevent us from fulfilling our potential. Why not turn that to our benefit and make our own laziness an asset?
Do you take advantage of inertia in your life? What does laziness help you accomplish? Let us know in the comments!
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