How to Make Creative Inertia Work for You

Inertia: the tendency of objects to preserve their present state of motion unless acted upon by an outside force.

Creative Inertia: the tendency of a creator at work to stay at work unless allowing an outside force to act upon them. Or, an artist at rest to stay at rest unless applying their will as an outside force.


NanoWriMo is almost halfway finished. As something of a Nano evangelist, I convinced a couple friends  to get on the bandwagon. Yesterday, I received an email from one of them. He said that even though he was behind, he hadn’t written this much or had so many ideas since he was in college. “The ideas,” he said, “just start jumping out at you.”

Reading about this made my day. It also made me think about burlaks.

What were burlaks? In pre-industrial Russia, burlaks were flea-bitten peasants laborers who would pull barges and ships along the Volga river or through canals. Working alone or as a team, they tied ropes around their body and were able to move huge amounts of freight to and from Moscow to the White Sea.

What does this have to do with creative inertia?

Before railroads, water was the way to move large amounts of stuff. Why? Because once you got the boat moving, it was pretty easy to keep it moving. You needed only sails, galley slaves, or some flea-bitten peasants to keep your vessel in motion.

In my experience, and as most NanoWriMoers can testify, creative inertia is no different. Getting started takes a huge act of will, but once you’re moving, it’s not too hard to stay in motion. You just have to do some grunt work.

Think of your creative project, whether it’s a book, a massive sculpture, an album of songs, whatever, as a big ship that you need to pull from city to sea. The distance is great, the size of the boat is intimidating, and you’ve got to work if you want to survive the winter.

Nobody ever said creating anything worthwhile was easy.

The work isn’t actually too bad, though. Getting started is the hard part. Once you overcome the first three stages of creative inertia, it’s smooth sailing.

The first stage is when you decide to pick up the rope. You know what outcome you want, but the ship seems so big. The thought of pulling it all the way to the sea makes your hands and shoulders hurt. That’s understandable. Most people quit at this point, before the job even starts.

Maybe you’re not sure. You might be waiting for the perfect time. You might say you’re still working out the details. These both seem like reasonable, logical reasons to delay starting a project. However, you should remember four things:

  • The perfect time will never come.
  • The details will work themselves out as you go along.
  • Your mistakes will help you learn what you’re doing right.
  • All that said, you can save yourself a lot of effort if you’re sure you’ve got the right boat.

The second stage is when you begin to pull and set your project in motion. In my opinion, this is the most challenging stage. That ship really is massive, and building up the inertia takes a lot of energy, will, and force.

Most new projects carry a huge learning curve. There are new steps, new processes, new physical and mental coordinations to learn. The five simple tasks required for completion have turned into fifty. Yikes!

Worse, this is when the real friction starts, and a lot of it is negative mental chatter. The ship is huge, and it really wants to remain at rest. This stationary inertia may manifest itself as anxiety, fear, or insecurity: fear of failure (or success), worries about how you’ll be perceived, fear of the shame of failure, insecurity about your own abilities. Things to remember during the second stage:

  • Getting good at anything takes time. Getting really good takes years. If you want to get really good as something, expect to spend a lot of time doing it.
  • You’re probably better than you think. If you’re not, you’ll learn from the process and will improve.
  • Most people won’t even notice if you fail, and if they do they won’t care. If anyone laughs at your failure, you can ignore them; they’re irrelevant bastards anyway.
  • Keep pulling! It gets easier.

In the third stage, you’re moving down the water to the sea.

The first two stages are hard, but if you keep working, you’ll reach the third stage. The third stage is when things begin to move along a lot easier. You’ve broken the stationary inertia of the ship, and now that your ship is in motion, it really wants to stay in motion. The bigger the ship, the more mass you have working in your favor. You still have a long way to go, and great effort and patience are required, but the important part is the ship is in motion.

The best part is this: in the third stage, your skill increases and your anxiety lowers. For those of you familiar with the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you know these are two conditions you need to achieve flow in your work.

And what burlak doesn’t like a good amount of flow?

When the ship starts to move, when you start to take advantage of creative inertia, you will start to see great results. A little bit of effort applied over a long period of time will keep your ship moving and your project(s) on track.

Sometimes all you have to do is pick up the rope and start pulling.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joanna Young November 17, 2009, 3:17 am

    I really enjoyed this Seth, and it describes very well how I feel about some different creative projects I am working on!

    Just one question… at the end when you say ‘start to take advantage of creative inertia’ – is it not the opposite of inertia you’re taking advantage of – momentum maybe (or something else my science isn’t up to)

  • Seth November 17, 2009, 6:35 am

    Hi Joanna, thanks for stopping by. You’re right about momentum, and I probably should have written ‘taking advantage of creative inertia and momentum.

    That said, inertia doesn’t mean being stationary. Rather, it describes the tendency of objects to remain stationary unless acted on by an outside for. Or, objects with x amount of momentum to maintain that momentum.

    Clear as mud?

  • Joanna Young November 17, 2009, 10:22 am

    No, that does help, and it makes it clearer to me what I need to do to move some of my heavy objects to the coast 🙂

  • Ivan November 17, 2009, 5:14 pm

    Thank you! I would now go on this blog every day!

  • Rick Hamrick November 19, 2009, 6:43 am

    One way to think about inertia in the instance where we are talking about a body in motion is what we do in our cars when we approach a red light.

    We use the brakes as an outside force to alter the inertia of the car, an inertia which will keep it goin’ right through the red light unless we take action.

    The cool thing about inertia is that it acts on our behalf when we are seeking to maintain even the slightest amount of forward progress, as long as we have gotten the doggoned thing moving in the first place.

  • Dana July 29, 2011, 10:06 am

    Wow, I just found your website and I love it! It is so helpful! The inner critic and the inertia, I love those. Especially the image of the boat! My boat is so big and heavy, being a doctoral dissertation, and even though I have been tugging at it regularly for a couple of years now, every morning I still wake up and cower before its size and power to call on the critic. Your imagery really helped me laugh at all of it today, allowed me to breathe easier. Frikin’ boat! It’s a beast! 

    Anyway, thank you for this site, I am new to it and I only read a couple of posts so far but I really enjoyed it. I suspect your sight will be one of my favorites, to be returned to over and over again to in search of the outside force that breaks inertia and gives you tools to shut the bastard critic up (yuck, I hate the critic. Him and the boat love to have orgies together). 

    All the best:)

  • Anonymous August 1, 2011, 12:45 am

    Hey Dana, thanks for the wonderful comment. Glad I could give you a bit of respite from your long slog through a dissertation. Good luck and look forward to hearing more from you!