Nature can answer our biggest questions and help us navigate our most difficult struggles.
Whether its exponential growth, standing out in a crowded marketplace, building an impressive network, going viral, getting fit or scoring a mate, observing lessons in nature can help us reach our goals.
And in order to best learn from nature, we can turn to science and in particular, physics.
Back in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton first published his three laws of motion in his book, Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.
This post will focus predominantly on the first two laws, and how you can use them to help you get closer to your professional and personal goals, and get further away from your vices, more efficiently.
It is ultimately a foundational thought piece, and I welcome you to provide feedback, criticise, or augment it in the comments.
An object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion.
We call this state of rest inertia.
Mass is a good indicator of inertia — light objects are easy to move, but heavy objects are much harder to move. You might be able to push a toy truck along the road, but not so a 27,000 pound Mack truck.
Objects at rest will only move when they encounter an unbalanced force.
So, what is an unbalanced force, then?!
Say there’s a block atop a table. There are two unbalanced forces acting upon the block: the downwards pull of gravity and the upwards push of the table — these forces are of equal magnitude, and so they ‘balance’ each other out, so the block stays still, per the below.
The rate of change of momentum on a body is directly proportional to the force applied, and the direction of the force applied.
This is known as F = ma (Force = Mass x Acceleration)
Mass = the weight and size of an object (the resistance that a body of matter offers to a change in its speed or position upon the application of a force — the greater the mass of a body, the smaller the change produced by an applied force)
Acceleration = the rate of change in velocity
Velocity = Distance / Time
Taking our previous example, say someone applies force on the block from right to left, and there is nobody pushing the block from the left side.
The pressure being applied by the hand represents an unbalanced force, and so the block will move to the left.
Once the hand is removed, the block stops moving as it is being acted on by another unbalanced force in gravity.
There are several forces acting on an object to slow its velocity.
When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
In other words, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The laws explains why starting something and stopping something can be difficult, because we are ultimately fighting against existing forces that may be greater than the force we’re applying.
Remember, we have to apply force that is greater than the forces currently acting on an object in order to move it.
We might also come up against forces such as friction that might make it difficult to accelerate.
So how might acceleration, velocity, mass and friction show up in our professional and personal lives?
Below you’ll find a mental stocktake of factors that add to the mass of an object on the left, and frictional forces on the right, that serve to slow us down.
Knowing these can help you to better navigate the unbalanced forces acting on your goals, in order to get closer to them, faster.
Author: If you can think of anything else that would go in the list below, please comment.
The average speed at which you are moving towards your goal.
If I’m working through an online course with 100 modules, and I’ve completed 50 modules in the past 10 weeks, then my velocity is 5 modules per week.
Note the subtle nuance here: velocity is the speed you are moving at towards your goal, as opposed to speed alone.
The rate at which your velocity is changing.
Say I completed 10 modules of the course in week 6. Then my velocity has essentially doubled that week. I have accelerated.
The faster the acceleration, the greater the force being applied (remember, F = ma).
So, if you’ve started an entrepreneurial project recently and you’ve noticed a massive upswing in sign-ups and purchases, you are accelerating quickly, and it is difficult to stop. However, if sign-ups tapered off and you found that after a few weeks, it had slowed down to dribs and drabs, you might find it much easier to stop and change course.
In physics, the greater the mass of a body, the smaller the change produced by an applied force.
In our lives too, there will be things that serve to increase the proverbial mass of an object — be it a job, a habit, relationship, a political association and so on — that will make changing more difficult.
Example 1: Quitting a Job
The mass of a job — in terms of the value we ascribe to it and how we measure its worth in our lives — will be a byproduct of many things.
This might include but would not be limited to:
The more we’ve invested into and the more we derive from our job, the greater its proverbial mass will be in our lives, and therefore the harder it will be to quit in search of greener pastures.
This means that we will need to apply a lot of force in order to walk away from said job.
To successfully quit our job, three paths (or a hybrid thereof) present themselves.
1. We Change Our Values
Perhaps we now value the freedom to do creative work over the six-figure salary that our suit-and-tie accounting job provides. If so, F will be smaller than it was before, and therefore it will be easier to change.
2. We Face Psychological Difficulty
We might quit a job of great force without having found a job of equal or greater force, in blind faith that we are making the right choice.
In this case, we are likely to face psychological difficulties and require emotional fortitude — and maybe financial reserves — to weather the storm, especially if our values haven’t really shifted all that much.
This might be the case if we leave an otherwise great job because of, say, an unbearable colleague, or an unforgiving commute.
3. We Find a Stronger Alternative — one with more Force
As Newton said, “the change of momentum of a body is proportional to the impulse impressed on the body — if a force generates a motion, a double force will generate double the motion, a triple force triple the motion”.
If we apply more force, we will generate more motion.
Translation: Find a job offering us a better set of circumstances, whether that be more pay, more status, more power, autonomy and so on. Ultimately, the contribution of these factors on the force of the job will come down to your personal values.
Example 2: The Entrepreneur’s Starting Jump
Many an entrepreneur will relate to the energy that takes over their body at the outset of a venture, when the seed of an idea has been planted in their minds.
Buoyed on by an intoxicating cocktail of neuro-chemicals, untempered hope and enthusiasm, the optimism bias, and blindness to the forces that will against us, we revel in the ‘starting jump’ — an unusually high, and unsustainable amount of energy.
Thanks to this, we’ll find ourselves applying great force initially, and might even make a little progress towards our goal…for a while.
Then the forces working against us — competition, customer appetite, switching costs, marketing costs, design bottlenecks, development challenges, supply chain issues and so on — become evident.The combined force of these factors slows down our progress to a point where we’re now making no progress at all — otherwise known by entrepreneurs as the ‘trough of despair’.
Sometimes being blind to forces acting against us can sabotage our efforts and set us up for failure, whether that be in business, investing, or life in general.
As mentioned earlier, we might roll a ball across a rough grassy surface, but it will move more slowly than it would on a smooth concrete surface. The ball will either come to a standstill through a combination of the surface slowing it down as well as surface forces and gravity (unless we keep pushing it, or it is on a downward slope with gravity pulling it down).
Once we start applying force in our own lives, there might be all manner of friction working against us.
This could be incompetence at a particular skill, a lack of relationships in a certain industry, insufficient time or money required to invest in a given area, or bureaucratic processes that serve to slow down and seriously compromise our progress.
Momentum is expressed as:
P = mv (Momentum = mass x velocity)
When we’re struggling to get started with a difficult task, it’s because the push of our will is weaker or equal to the force of our evolutionary programming, forcing us to take the path of least effort. As a result, we keep procrastinating.
If heavy objects are much harder to move, you will need to dig deep to apply more force, and it may feel like you’re deploying the crane or the wrecking ball of your mind just to get started.
But if you deploy that wrecking ball every day, and continue to apply a little bit more each day — essentially increasing the velocity and acceleration — you will end up applying more force and the object will become easier to move with time. Eventually, you won’t need a proverbial wrecking ball, but maybe just a light push with your hands to get it to move.
This holds true with getting into a habit of starting your day with the most difficult task, getting into a daily workout routine, or writing 1,000 words a day.
It all comes down to starting with the smallest possible and manageable unit of effort, and then increasing it at a given frequency to increase the velocity, and build momentum, thus making it easier to keep going, and more difficult to stop.
The same holds true for reading…
You might find the same when you sit down to read. Sometimes, you might instead prefer to vegetate on the couch. But if you’ve willed yourself to pick up a book, you’ll find it considerably easier to turn to a second page than it was to pick the book up in the first place.
Tim Ferriss’ daily writing quota is just ‘two crappy pages a day’. Those two pages help him get started. It’s not about the quality — it’s about getting started. Writing a 1000-word article from scratch may seem like a Herculean task, but once you’ve got 100 words down — no matter how crappy — you get into your groove.
The inverse of this is that the longer we have been doing something, the harder it is to change — whether that be a job, relationship, area we’ve lived in, cafe we’ve frequented and so on.
Download Chapter One of my forthcoming book on workplace productivity, Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life, below!
Momentum also explains why it’s not a good idea to litter your work day with interruptions, meetings, and desktop and smartphone notifications.
Each time you respond to an interruption, you’re stopping whatever it was you were doing, and therefore having to exert more effort to get started again. Research shows it can take us about 23 minutes to get back in ‘the zone’ after an interruption.
Over the course of a day, this can be incredibly taxing on your energy and cognition. Even the slightest distraction, such as the 1/10th of a second glance at smartphone notification, can add up to a 40% productivity loss over the course of a day.
This ultimately requires you to work much later to get stuff done, and even then, suffer a degradation in the quality of your work, which if it becomes a habit, can have a deleterious effect on where you end up in the long run when you factor for compounding.
This interpretation of the laws of motion and how they apply to life is by no means perfect or fully fleshed out. It represents a work in progress.
Despite that, I think it is a useful and helpful start and one that I invite you to augment.
Finally, I sincerely hope that I haven’t offended any physicists with my interpretations — if so, sorry! :)
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.