Why is it so hard to stop doing what you're doing?


‘Why can’t I stop doing what I’m doing?’

My 21-year-old son asked me this question recently and I was able to reply (rather impressively, I thought), ‘It’s because of behavioural inertia!’

I knew exactly what he meant. I can remember thinking once I had left the constraints of the parental home I’d lead the perfect life, being fully in control of my food intake and my time management.

I could no longer blame my mother for presenting me with delicious home-made cakes. But I soon discovered other temptations. I would buy a packet of biscuits – ‘for visitors’ – and eat them all in one go, because nobody would know.

More mysteriously, why was it, come midnight, I never wanted to go to bed and yet eight hours later I didn’t want to get out of it?

‘Behavioural inertia’ is a term frequently used in economics, to describe the endurance of a stable state associated with inaction and status quo bias.

An example of this is when we are urged to switch energy provider to save ourselves money, but we are too lazy or scared to do so.

What my son refers to is slightly different. If you pause to think, you know you’ll be happy doing the next activity but you can’t bring yourself to STOP the current one. Humans are programmed to use as little energy as possible; it’s easier not to change what we’re doing.

When you’re working (or playing) at your computer, you lose track of time. It’s only when you’re interrupted you notice how stiff you feel – because you’ve hardly moved during the past hour!

You know this is not good for you. You know you’ll feel better if you take a break. So give yourself a little help.

You need to adopt some subtle tactics. You’ll most likely find that when you’re lost in an activity, your eyes are totally focussed on what you are doing. To break the spell, you need to look around you and reconnect with your environment.

You may also notice your breathing has become shallow. Don’t force yourself to ‘breathe deeply’ but simply allow it to happen. Sit on your sitting bones. Ensure your arms aren’t pressing against your ribs. Give yourself space to breathe.

What has happened to your feet and legs? Untangle them and place both feet on the ground. This gives you support and allows you to let go of muscular tension.

Set a 30-minute alarm and don’t ignore it! If you’re in the middle of something, ensure you can take up the thread after your short break. (A couple of minutes is fine.)

Give yourself a reason to move, e.g. to fetch a drink.

Remind yourself how beneficial it can be to clear the mind. The solution to a problem often presents itself during a break. Best of all, practise a few minutes of Active Rest

By stopping, noticing, and giving yourself the choice to continue or change activity you will ultimately function better and get more done.