How to Overcome Inertia and Get Yourself Unstuck

The 17th Century physicist Isaac Newton observed in his famous laws of motion that objects at rest stay at rest and objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. You’ve perhaps experienced this phenomenon as you chase your kids’ baseball while it rolls for a block and a half as you curse under your breath. You’ve also maybe observed it when you’re parked comfortably on the couch after a long, stressful day and know it would take all the king’s men to move you from that spot.

While I’m half kidding about the second example, I’ve seen the principle of inertia up close in my work over the years. People who are genuinely committed to better health often fight a certain physical and mental resistance for a while before the force of their own hard-earned momentum finally begins working for them. Likewise, I’ve seen people who struggled early on to get their fitness routine off the ground eventually experience it as second nature. They breeze through their new lifestyle where before the push to change left them in frustrated tears. (Maybe you’ve been there.)

We tend to think of health change solely as an attitude adjustment. If our mental game is good enough, then the physical effects are sure to follow. If we “fail” or backslide, it’s because we weren’t committed enough. Likewise, if we’re healthy and fit, we can look at those who aren’t and automatically judge their perceived lack of effort: “I got my workout in. The same choice is just as easy for that person.” or “I can walk by the vending machine without temptation. It’s obvious he/she doesn’t have any willpower.” Are these statements really fair – or even accurate?

Is the inertia all in our heads? Should exercising on “day one” really be any harder than on “day ninety-one” when workouts are tailored to respective fitness levels? What about eating? Does healthier eating really become more appealing over time, or is just a matter of mental discipline and habit? Is it just our tastes and routines that adjust, or do our brains change as well? You might be surprised….

There are some unfortunate facts about heading down a bad road. Our choices, especially when they become patterns, have more than short-term impact. While eating a cookie this afternoon won’t induce any serious changes in your brain or body (although there will be short-term consequences), having a cookie most afternoons – particularly when paired with other unhealthy choices – can over time put you on a physiological track.

For example, obesity and inactivity, obesity and poor eating – they’re more chicken versus the egg questions than we sometimes give them credit for. The easy assumption, of course, is to assume that inactivity causes obesity (or significantly contributes to it), but it’s also a result of it. Studies increasingly highlight how obesity can result in a persisting fatigue as well as how processed foods make us “more tired and sedentary.” Additionally, established routines of processed junk food alter our brain’s reward circuitry and decreases our interest in novel foods and balanced dietary choices.

The take home message here? It’s not a simple, straight line of bad choices to bad results. It’s a messy cul-de-sac of poor choices, unwanted results, and established physiological resistance to change. In other words – it’s a miserable cycle that feeds on itself.

So if being obese contributes to making us more obese, being inactive and eating crap food contribute to making us be further inactive and eating more junk, where’s the solution? Clearly, millions of people make progress and change their health for the better all the time. So, where is the exit ramp?

The path is clear, I’d say. You can move out of the cul-de-sac anytime you want, in fact. The issue appears to be this. There’s no shortcut or leisurely cruising our way out. It’s more of a leave your car by the side of the road and walk (maybe literally and figuratively).

In a culture hell-bent on selling convenience and latching onto quick-fixes, it’s critical to kick that mindset to the curb on your way out of Dodge. Count on the beginning of the endeavor to be the most arduous part and plan for that. If it’s not, you’ll be fortunate and have extra energy and support for further progress, but if it is, you’ll be prepared.

A study of nearly 100 people over several months, for example, suggests it takes an average of 66 days of repeating a new behavior for that new addition to become “automatic” habit. Not all behaviors take equal time either… New exercise routines took approximately 50% longer to cement into habit as eating/drinking behaviors.

On the other, more positive side of the coin, sticking with our good intentions eventually can reward us multiple-fold as our efforts end up supporting each other and our bodies gradually build momentum. (Objects in motion stay in motion….)

As an example of our efforts cross-pollinating, so to speak, research has demonstrated how exercise actually reduces our brain’s neuronal responses to food rewards. In other words, when we exercise, we have a lower motivation to eat, we anticipate eating less and we don’t get the same heightened pleasure from eating.

Likewise, persistent healthy food choices will over time recalibrate our brain’s reward system. Brain scans of study participants who began a healthier diet protocol after six months showed enhanced reward sensitivity to healthy foods and a reduced response to unhealthy choices. In other words, the brain takes a while to catch up, but we can rewire our way out of bad patterns.

I tend to believe knowledge is power in those situations – particularly knowledge about where you’re starting from and what you can expect. I’ve heard people say they’d rather not know if they’re up against a tough row, that they don’t want their parade rained on, that their motivation will be enough to carry them if people just don’t “discourage” them with warnings and so-called reality checks. Maybe that works for them. But I’ve seen plenty of folks who mimic the language earlier and tell themselves it’s no different for them – that they can just as easily do what others are already doing. A large percentage of them later give up before they’ve gotten off the ground.

Would you want to know these points right out of the starting gate?

At issue here is what can we do with these findings. How can we use them to build effective strategy rather than apply them as excuse to not even bother starting? I think the key is to imagine a rocket launch. It takes a massive and sustained boost to get beyond gravity, but once you’re above the strongest pull backwards, you find yourself in an amazing space.

What we’re looking at here is more than inertia really. It’s not just about getting moving but about the extra effort and patience to overcome negative physiological as well as behavioral patterns. If we can understand that there will likely be a lag time between our mental decisions and our bodies’ progress we’ll be more apt to have patience with our own process. Likewise, we’ll know to front load that process with effort, support and other motivation-boosters. We can create a series of lower threshold goals along the way and choose to value quicker advances and small wins even if they’re not the big results we’re really gunning for. (Those will come, too.)

The tipping point in behavior change, it appears, isn’t scare tactics or additional justification but simple accessibility. Making your process more accessible – easier, clearer, more blatantly simple to follow – can be the best strategy to begin.

Knowing the behavioral and physiological trends in addition to the essential knowing yourself – what cues you’re likely to respond to – will help you establish the routines that will be most effective in your daily life. With time, you brain and body will catch up with your intentions, and you’ll be working with the added bonus of momentum on your new Primal track.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Share your thoughts on inertia, momentum and your Primal gains. Have a great end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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44 thoughts on “How to Overcome Inertia and Get Yourself Unstuck”

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  1. People constantly ask me how I stay motivated to workout and eat right. I spent my early 20’s obese (BMI 30.5) and lost 50 lbs bringing my BMI down to 22 over two years of slowly adapting a ‘health nut’ lifestyle. For a few years I was worried I’d fall of the wagon, and eventually regain the weight. It never happened. It’s been 5ish years since I reached my healthy set point and it’s still a CHOICE every day to workout and to eat (somewhat) healthy.

    1. Erica, I would love to hear more about your story and how you lost your weight!!! PLEASE!!!

  2. I love the image of the messy cul-de-sac, and the idea that we can move out at any time!

  3. This is a timely post for me. I’ve been pulling back on my workouts to try and let a nagging back injury heal, but I know I need to get back in the groove soon. I definitely agree that once you’re in the swing of things, it’s easier to keep on keeping on. And when I’m getting to the gym regularly, I find myself eating healthier, taking time to stretch and foam roll, going to sleep earlier, etc…

    1. Just make sure you let that back injury heal. You may want to consult with your doctor and/or a physical therapist for some help (if you’ve not already). It can be amazing what some good stretches and exercises can do to get you back on track. I really wish I had the machine that my physical therapist had me use for stretching my lower back. It was simply awesome. Fortunately, I figured out how to get similar results at home.

  4. I like the rocket launch analogy a lot. The hardest part is always getting started, but with some consistency and practice you can transform that thing that was really tough at first into a good habit that becomes almost automatic!

  5. It’s a timely post for me too. I began eating a paleo/primal diet after Thanksgiving of last year, but am only really just beginning fitness portion of my new lifestyle. Weight loss results were slow with just eating right, but I felt great. Now that I feel stronger, I’ve begun moving more and climbing stairs; I’m working up to lifting more heavy things. Todays post reminded me that it’s a process and better results will come if I stick with it and keep moving forward, building momentum as I go. Thanks Mark and everyone here for all the info and encouragement!

  6. Spot on with my own experience, especially your closing paragraph. I am entering my 4th month Primal I have lost: 30 lbs, countless aches, and 5ish inches. At first things were tough but as I have gained inertia I find it increasingly easy to say no and to say yes as the appropriate times.

    Good stuff!

  7. Celebrating the small wins is so important. My office manager bought us junk food (again) and even with it sitting there all day on the table, I wasn’t tempted at all. I used to get that pang of “fake” hunger from it or would grab it unconsciously and graze. I also used to feel bad that not eating would be insulting (it’s their culture). The best part of this lifestyle is the sugar-busting that results from it. After three days of eating primal I had zero cravings for soda (used to be several 20 oz. bottles per day) and cupcakes. Even my sense of smell has changed. The “Christmas Cookie” candle that used to make me ravenous now just reminds me of the holiday rather than stuffing my face. I’m still working on better sleep and finding more energy, but the lack of cravings so far is worth it!

  8. Once I changed to Primal eating and exercise a year ago, I experienced positive results so quickly that my mind established enough inertia to push me past temptations to cheat or compromise.

    Now that my results have exceeded my expectations, I find myself becoming too comfortable, too complacent and too likely to eat what I know is bad, too many times in a row. Seems a bit harder for me now, than it did 6-8 months ago. I feel like I’m continually having to reengage.

    1. I’ve experienced this as well, and it typically coincides with winter when sunlight is dramatically decreased (I live in Alaska). After a couple years, I made the connections, and this year was much different: I was mentally prepared, I took a quality Vitamin D supplement, and I use the winter months to focus on strength training.

      Anyway, you’re not alone. I don’t know what your history is, but the best analogy I’ve heard compares people who have spent a lot of their life overweight to people who have spent a lot of their life smoking: the desire to [smoke/eat junk food] never really goes away, and every day is a battle to make the choice to [not smoke/eat well]. Being Primal can be a daily battle, and sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s more difficult. But it’s always, always worth it.

    2. I’m having this problem as we speak, and I’ve tried and failed several times to get out of it. I lost about 25 pounds a couple years ago by going primal, and stuck with it for about a year, and it was awesome. Then I got complacent and just got off the routine, and now I’m right back to where I was before I started; maybe even worse than I was.

      With summer fast approaching, the idea of having to go back to not having sweaters and coats to hide behind is scaring me, but I just can’t get into the mindset of really wanting to make a change.

  9. The key for me is to make it easier to comply than not: Removing all non-primal foods from my home (meaning I’d have to go to the store to get something I shouldn’t be eating, by which time I’d hopefully have a change of heart), laying out and packing up my clothes for my pre-work workout, so that I’d actually have to unpack everything if I didn’t go, and preparing my meals for the week the weekend. Who can resist all that yummy prepared food once it’s ready to go?

    1. I wish I could do this. Having a roommate who is not primal makes things so much harder.

  10. Regarding the rocket analogy: it takes years to build the rocket, one piece at a time, Then it has to be taken to to the launching pad and hoisted into position. After that there’s the drama of the firestorm and the lift-off before reaching the point where simply the fact of being in that place at that time keeps the rocket moving toward Mars.

  11. Another comment: the more pleasurable the new activity, the faster it becomes habitual. I think this is why the boot camp approach works for so few people – it’s not fun, the instructor is often verbally abusive in the name of motivation, and there’s a finite limit. One looks forward to getting it over with!

  12. Great post. I recommend the book, “Small Move, Big Change” by Caroline Arnold – there are also several articles floating around the internet that talk about using microresolutions to cause big changes.

    The biggest eye opener for me was that the most effective habits to cultivate are the “scaffolding” or supporting habits, not the big change I really want.

    For example, I really wanted to go to the gym before work. I had little success until I ignored the gym & just focused on packing my work clothes and toiletries for the next day, and putting them in my car, as soon as I got home from work.

    Lugging my stuff back in is now more trouble than it’s worth. It’s a little mental misdirection that has me in the gym 5 days a week.

    I’ve since found that if I’m struggling with an important change, I need to back up a few steps and make a few smaller changes first. (Which usually reveals some self-limiting belief that I need to confront, but that’s a different post 😀 )

  13. Change can be scary. I know that I’m scared to abandon my car. It’s really old and I’m kind of waiting for it to die on me so that I won’t have any choice but to buy another one but the “cold turkey” approach is making me worry in advance… sigh.

    I could do it now, do as if I don’t have it and just let it sit in my driveway but I just don’t do it. It’s so much easier to just use it. I feel the inertia really badly.

  14. “…when we exercise, we have a lower motivation to eat, we anticipate eating less and we don’t get the same heightened pleasure from eating.”

    Am I the only one this doesn’t apply to? The more I lift heavy things (and the heavier the weight I lift), the more ravenous I become. I’ve even had the conversation with myself before working out that I need to show some constraint afterwards, but I still end up shoveling it in. Clean (read: Primal) eating though it may be, it is still being done disproportionately…

    1. Yeah. That’s me too. I’ll have a big meal with all of the things (primal, of course) right after a workout. After a particularly long bout with a big kettlebell, I can eat like a teenage boy for an hour or more until I feel satisfied. I’ve accepted this, and haven’t seen any negative results from it personally. On days when I take it easy, I eat less. Just shovel in what the body wants and don’t worry to much about it as long as you know it’s real, good primal food.

    2. Well, when you work out, you’re expending more energy. So your body, in turn, demands more energy in the form of food.

      This is why the CW of “eat less, move more” is severely flawed. The more we move, the more energy our bodies will want, and the hungrier we are.

      I think it’s perfectly natural to be hungry after working out. If you’re following a primal way of eating, you should be fine. Just be sure to really pay attention to when you’ve had enough, and don’t get to that point of being stuffed.

      I also recommend Gary Taubes’ books, Good Calories Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. Excellent sources of information on what you’re experiencing.

    3. Same thing here. If I’m inactive I lose my appetite, if I’m very active I eat a lot.

  15. I just had my wisdom teeth removed about a week ago, and I was really worried about what I was going to eat. I was on a really good roll with my food prior to the surgery, and old habits dictated that “well, that’s all out the window until I recover from this surgery! Guess I better go buy some Campbells soup and Jello pudding!” But then I decided that, instead of my usual mind set regarding “comfort foods” i.e. non-food, I would eat as healthy as possible during recovery. I made a bunch of very flavorful, nutritious, very calorie dense soft foods and soups. I ate very little sugar – my treat was vanilla custard that I made myself – and it was all real food. First of all, I can’t believe how good it all tastes; and second, instead of gaining a bunch of weight because of eating bad foods, I actually lost five pounds without even feeling hungry. Instead of putting my good progress on hold, I chose to continue on with my good eating, I believe I have shifted my ideas about comfort food forever. Comfort = healing to me now. I’m gonna keep on rollin’!

  16. My eleven year old daughter has figured out how to keep herself motivated when overcome with task friction. She simply quotes Dory from Finding Nemo and sings, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming”. I find myself doing it too, albeit not out loud.

    1. My 12-yr-old daughter uses that as well, sometimes – and we will sing it together. Depending on where I am, I have been known to sing it aloud to myself – when she’s not around. But we have both gotten out of the habit. Thanks for the reminder.

  17. I think that when you see positive results from making better choices it’s much easier to keep going… I’ve been keto adapted for about a year now and I went from being diabetic to pre-diabetic.. and on my way to being diabetes free, I lost 50 pounds and I never felt better… that’s all the motivation I need…

    1. Exactly, success breeds success or better results inspire you to achieve even better results.

  18. Just like drugs.
    Change only happens when the individual has had enough, and devalues the drug and the high.
    Hence, leaving the car at the roadside. At that point it might not even be drivable anymore…
    They might need some time to physically kick the addiction, but ultimate success depends on the mindset, coping skills, and resolve of the individual.

    I always get a little riled when I hear someone say that people can’t do it alone, and that they need a support system.
    Temporarily, sure, but I think this kind of longterm thinking leads to a substitute dependence, and almost fosters weakness.
    There’s nothing wrong with encouragement, comradery, and well wishes from others, but when you keep looking outside yourself for the strength to cope, it makes for a weaker constitution. It’s hard to imagine you can depend on yourself, when you have an entourage holding you up.

    Giving your power away is a trap that can become a habit, even for seemingly good reason, and sometimes leads you right back to the underlying issues that caused your imbalance.

    Most empaths feel guilt making themselves the priority, and run themselves ragged for others. It’s not envogue to be selfish and take care of self first.
    It even seems counterintuitive to not help others first, but keeping yourself strong, grounded, and balanced makes you much more valuable.

    I will not eat cake for someone because it will make me ill. If they don’t understand and are insulted that I wouldn’t eat their cake, who’s being selfish then? If I eat it, I’ve set a precedent, and means I will have to eat it again, and again. This type of behavior can snowball into many compromises that end up with you feeling out of control, helpless, and yes, stuck.

    It’s important to explain that you appreciate all the effort and the thought that went into their “cake” (metaphor), but
    I’d rather nip it in the bud and give the cake giver an alternative that they can either do nothing next time, or if they insist on doing something for me, I will suggest something simple I can enjoy. Honest and simple keeps it that way.

  19. I do my exercises on my gym rings, such as dips and pushups, but the “burn” in my arm joints keeps me sore, almost always. It’s not easy to make friends with the ‘burn’. Nobody likes pain. Maybe that’s why so many people quit.

  20. My family thinks my ‘high standards’ in food are unattainable but it’s built up over time. Each time i try to make the better of 2 choices available to me when I am having the 80/20 moment (more like 95/5 for me).
    If I end up getting a little later than usual, I go to the gym for a shorter time instead of not going at all. If once in a while I get temped to eat orange cake, I just take 2 bites instead of gorging it. If I am feeling too tired to stand and work the whole day, I just do it half the time. And on and on and before you know it, you are 98% of the time on track.

    1. I like that you bring up the 80/20 rule and how it can evolve as we continue to adapt this lifestyle. When I started, the 20 typically consisted of SAD foods like cookies and desserts and mochas. Now, my 20 consists more of less-Primal but still “okay” foods, like grass-fed cream and cheese (can anyone say Breve???), wine, well-made sourdough, chia pudding, etc. The SAD stuff rarely calls out to me anymore, and I like making a lot more things at home if I’m in the mood for say, paleo pancakes.

  21. A metaphorical view:

    Think of those really big freight trains with 40 carriages, if you’ve ever seen them rev up from a dead stop, they go to high power for what seems a good 30 seconds before the train appears to move at all, then they pick up speed really, really, slowly, a slow, but unstoppable speed. They don’t run at max, as that would overheat the engine, or snap carriage couplings.

    Diet / exercise can seem like this when first starting out, your running flat out and not moving, what’s going on – just have faith that you are building up speed, but it unperceivable at the start, you just need to keep that effort at a MAINTAINABLE, CONSTANT rate, and you will beat the inertia. If you try the quick solution of running 100% flat out, you’ll run out of steam, and maybe snap your own couplings, or “blow a piston”.

    The 80/20 rule is fantastic, and the key to why the primal works, and funnily enough, 80% is what they run the “diesels” at to get the train moving – 100% would just blow the engine, or snap couplings, same with your primal plan. Keep your “power” at 80%, and keep it constant.

  22. I agree about the momentum and everything. But I find I do best by taking baby steps. And that is what I suggest to people having a hard time committing to better choices. First quit gluten, then quit grains, etc. Put downward pressure on your carbs until they are where you want but don’t beat yourself up about it. Plan very short exercise times such as a 10 minute walk…etc.

  23. Love this line – “Count on the beginning of the endeavor to be the most arduous part and plan for that”.

    Makes me feel a lot better about my swims, the first minute of which I dread because the water is always so cold. I sometimes even use this as an excuse to skip the pool.

  24. I think of “inertia” as a form of cognitive dissonance. I’ve been working out for so long now that my desire to give up causes me more stress than soldiering on. Reaching that tipping point was hard work, though.

  25. In January several of us all commit to climb Mt. Shasta in late May or early June. This creates a built in motivation, like signing up for a race. Shasta takes no BS and I’ve been spanked more than once, there is no faking it over 13,000′. Fear of Shasta’s rath is my reason to get my a$$ out of bed and do the work.