Conserving Your Momentum

August 12, 2011

Remember your education in physics? No, not the stuff from your radiology residency; I’m talking about undergraduate classes, or even earlier. Chances are you thought more than a couple of times about how irrelevant this stuff was going to be, once you got into med school. I know I did.

Remember your education in physics? No, not the stuff from your radiology residency; I’m talking about undergraduate classes, or even earlier. Chances are you thought more than a couple of times about how irrelevant this stuff was going to be, once you got into med school. I know I did.

Every now and then, however, I find concepts from those days showing surprising relevance in non-technical contexts. Take for instance the notion of momentum, or inertia. Objects in motion staying in motion, etc. I’ve noticed that this has behavioral and even social ramifications.

Suppose I have a dozen different tasks to get done around my house. They might be simple things, each needing no more than a few minutes of my attention. Problem is I’m sitting on my couch, watching TV. There’s nothing particularly good on, but I’m comfortable and relaxed, and the notion of disrupting my bliss to struggle off the couch and get to work is unwelcome to me. I might not even get up to answer the phone, should it ring; I can call ‘em back later.

But now, I get thirsty, and haul myself upright to go get a drink. Now in motion, it occurs to me how much those dozen little tasks have been annoying me. I decide to take care of one or two. It feels good to polish them off, and next thing I know I’m plowing through the rest of the list. I finish the last item, and I find myself casting about for anything else that needs doing. I don’t want to sit back down and become idle again.

The same thing happens at work. Sometimes, I feel “on,” energized, and I can fly through stacks of cases with surprising efficiency. I’m focused and on my A-game. Other times, the world conspires against me; I find myself favoring anything other than work - chatting with colleagues, returning phone calls, dare I say going on Facebook… Cracking the whip on myself under such circumstances might get a few things done, but it feels as if I’m in slow motion, like half of my brain is somewhere else.

I’ve learned to capitalize on this. If I’m “in the zone,” so to speak, I recognize that now is the time for things to happen. Allowing distractions to blunt my momentum is throwing away a gift, as if I were trying to sail a boat but waited until the wind was no longer blowing. So I avoid social interactions if I can; I might even turn off my cellphone. If the mail gets delivered, I don’t even glance at it. Is it time for my midmorning coffee-refill? That can wait, too.

Conversely, if I can feel that things just aren’t happening at the moment, I try not to bang my head against the wall and force the issue. Instead, I try shifting gears to the sorts of distractions that I ignored before. Sometimes, I can rebuild momentum in those other venues, and bring some of it back with me to my main task.

The media, I think, recognizes the value of momentum, and harnesses it on a social level. Next time you’re channel-surfing to see what old movies are running on cable, see if you notice a trend as to what’s being aired. Does it seem that half of the movies feature De Niro? What a coincidence; he’s got a new film coming out next month. I wonder if the studio is trying to build momentum for him? Of course, they call it something else - “generating buzz.”