How to fight personal and professional inertia

Aug. 11, 2022

While I’ve certainly enjoyed covering all of this year’s user groups and other events, I have to admit it comes at a slightly higher cost. After two and a half years of mostly sitting at my dining room table, I noticed it took some additional effort to get out into today’s sort-of, post-COVID-19 environment.

Of course, much of this just requires shaking off the usual rust of too much sitting, and merely practicing the physical skills for traveling whatever distances our destinations demand. However, some of the rusty patches don’t shake off, stay stuck on, and continue to creak and stiffen. I just wish I hadn’t done that feature article on osteoarthritis years ago because I’m routinely reminded that it’s right around the corner. The most well-known advice in that healthcare sector is still, “Use it or lose it.”

Consequently, it’s clear the main task is distinguishing between the activities that we can continue to do and those we can’t, and then keep doing as many as we can for as long as possible. Unfortunately, I also practice inertia far more often than exercising my get-up-and-go, and I know I’m not the only one who’s usually in a chair in front of a screen.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always worked for newspapers, magazines and other publications with very small staffs and shops, but I remember being amazed by the apparently hundreds of editors and managers on the mastheads of the famous newsweekly magazines. I recall a coworker in the 1990s telling me that Newsweek had six or more separate editing layers. My publications usually had two or three sets of eyes besides mine checking my copy, though lately we've been down to two at best.

However, I was even more stunned to realize there were only about a dozen reporters and foreign correspondents at the bottom of the big magazines' mastheads, and they seemed to be generating all the stories for those upper layers to mull over. It appeared that everyone wanted to be an editor or columnist in an office, and no one wanted to be out on the street doing the actual job of the publication.

More recently, I’ve encountered an endless parade of consultants, search engine optimization (SEO) experts, content curators and other facilitators. They all collect fees or salaries for poring over data and providing advice on how to increase readership, web traffic and advertising revenue. However, I still haven’t met any consultants that do the actual work of researching and generating original content for those much-sought-after readers. Sadly, these parasitic behaviors aren’t restricted to trade publishing, and show up in many of the process and other industries. I've covered more than a few at one time or another. They typically latch onto managers, who want to look like they’re managing by hiring someone instead of actually doing it.

How can we avoid being bumps on a log and reduce professional and personal inertia? In my case, just as I stay on the lookout for useful input and content, I also look for opportunities to be useful myself and hopefully helpful to others. The main trick is one that I believe most engineers know well, even if they don’t employ it outside of their technical or operational settings—develop a thorough plan and schedule enough time to carry it out.

Likewise, senior citizens are told to “plan your moves” to avoid falls. They also work on “transitioning” from lying or sitting to standing or vice versa, and practice “activities of daily living” (ADL) to maintain mobility and independence for as long as they can. I learned many of these strategies while caregiving for my parents in the last few years, and I’m planning to remember, repurpose and reuse everything in that bag of tricks when I need it, too.

I’m also aware that what will become increasingly difficult will eventually become impossible, but I don’t think that realization should prevent us from enjoying the world and its people for as long as we can. Gravity and age are unavoidable. Inertia and indolence are choices.

About the author: Jim Montague

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