The Physics of Productivity: Newton’s Laws of Getting Stuff Done

In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published his groundbreaking book, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which described his three laws of motion. In the process, Newton laid the foundation for classical mechanics and redefined the way the world looked at physics and science.

What most people don’t know, however, is that Newton’s three laws of motion can be used as an interesting analogy for increasing your productivity, simplifying your work, and improving your life.

Allow me to present this analogy as Newton’s Laws of Productivity.

Newton’s First Law of Productivity

First Law of Motion: An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force. (i.e. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.)

In many ways procrastination is a fundamental law of the universe. It’s Newton’s first law applied to productivity. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.

The good news? It works the other way too. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. When it comes to being productive, this means one thing: the most important thing is to find a way to get started. Once you get started, it is much easier to stay in motion. [1, 2]

physics of productivity first law

So, what’s the best way to get started when you are stuck procrastinating?

In my experience, the best rule of thumb for getting started is the 2-Minute Rule. [3]

Here’s the 2-Minute Rule adjusted for productivity: To overcome procrastination, find a way to start your task in less than two minutes.

Notice that you don’t have to finish your task. In fact, you don’t even have to work on the primary task. However, thanks to Newton’s first law, you’ll often find that once you start this little 2-minute task, it is much easier to keep moving.

Here are some examples…

  • Right now, you may not feel like going for a run. But if you put your running shoes on and fill up your water bottle that small start might be enough to get you out the door.
  • Right now, you might be staring at a blank screen and struggling to write your report. But if you write random sentences for just two minutes, then you may find that useful sentences start to roll off your fingers.
  • Right now, you might have a creative block and be struggling to draw something. But if you draw a random line on a sheet of paper and turn it into a dog, then you might get your creative juices flowing.

Motivation often comes after starting. Find a way to start small. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

Newton’s Second Law of Productivity

Second Law of Motion: F=ma. The vector sum of the forces on an object is equal to the mass of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector of the object. (i.e. Force equals mass times acceleration.)

Let’s break down this equation, F=ma, and how it can apply to productivity.

There is one important thing to note in this equation. The force, F, is a vector. Vectors involve both magnitude (how much work you are putting in) and direction (where that work is focused). In other words, if you want to get an object accelerating in a particular direction, then the size of the force you apply and the direction of that force will both make a difference.

Guess what? It’s the same story for getting things done in your life.

If you want to be productive, it’s not merely about how hard you work (magnitude), it’s also about where that work is applied (direction). This is true of big life decisions and small daily decisions.

For example, you could apply the same skill set in different directions and get very different results.

physics of productivity first law
Note: the idea for this image came from artwork created by my friend, Oliver Emberton, in his wonderful post titled, “Life is a game. This is your strategy guide.” Thanks Oliver!

To put it simply, you only have a certain amount of force to provide to your work and where you place that force is just as important as how hard you work.

Newton’s Third Law of Productivity

Third Law of Motion: 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. (i.e. Equal and opposite forces.)

We all have an average speed that we tend to perform at in life. Your typical levels of productivity and efficiency are often a balance of the productive and unproductive forces in your life — a lot like Newton’s equal and opposite forces.

There are productive forces in our lives like focus, positivity, and motivation. There are also unproductive forces like stress, lack of sleep, and trying to juggle too many tasks at once.

physics of productivity third law

If we want to become more effective and more productive, then we have two choices.

The first option is to add more productive force. This is the “power through it” option. We gut it out, drink another cup of coffee, and work harder. This is why people take drugs that help them focus or watch a motivational video to pump themselves up. It’s all an effort to increase your productive force and overpower the unproductive forces we face.

physics of productivity third law

Obviously, you can only do this for so long before you burn out, but for a brief moment the “power through it” strategy can work well.

The second option is to eliminate the opposing forces. Simplify your life, learn how to say no, change your environment, reduce the number of responsibilities that you take on, and otherwise eliminate the forces that are holding you back.

physics of productivity third law

If you reduce the unproductive forces in your life, your productivity will glide forward naturally. It’s like you magically remove the hand that has been holding you back. (As I like to say, if you eliminated all of the things distracting you from being productive, you wouldn’t need tips on how to become more productive.) [4]

Most people try to power through and hammer their way past the barriers. The problem with this strategy is that you’re still dealing with the other force. I find it to be much less stressful to cut out the opposing forces and let your productivity naturally flow forward.

Newton’s Laws of Productivity

Newton’s laws of motion reveal insights that tell you pretty much everything you need to know about how to be productive.

  1. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Find a way to get started in less than 2 minutes.
  2. It’s not just about working hard, it’s also about working on the right things. You have a limited amount of force and where you apply it matters.
  3. Your productivity is a balance of opposing forces. If you want to be more productive, you can either power through the barriers or remove the opposing forces. The second option seems to be less stressful.

James Clear writes a weekly newsletter about the science of habit formation and how to use behavioral science to improve your health, creativity, and productivity.

Click here to leave a comment.

Sources

  1. Psychology studies have also revealed that it is easier for us to stay in motion once we have started. Actually, what the studies show is that our human brains have a strong urge to finish tasks that we start. We don’t like leaving things unfinished or partially done. This is a widely research phenomenon known as the Ziegarnik Effect, named after the Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.
  2. After writing this post, I found out that Stephen Guise has also written about the idea of “objects in motion, stay in motion” in his book, Mini Habits.
  3. The 2-Minute Rule originally comes from David Allen’s best-selling book, Getting Things Done.
  4. This idea of analyzing supporting and opposing forces, which is sometimes referred to as a Force Field Analysis, was first thought up by Kurt Lewin. This is the same man who is responsible for Lewin’s Equation.

Thanks to Rob Norback for sharing the idea behind the “third law of productivity”, which sparked this post. And to Sir Isaac Newton for being a man ahead of his time and for being a bold mofo who owned his rockstar hair.

89 Comments

  1. Great truths. Love the classic physics approach to productivity. Some eternal truths cross platforms-which you just proved. Thanks!

  2. Love your diagrams James.

    Had to think about the final one until I realised the box had moved closer to the Effective end of the Productivity spectrum.

    Maybe Fb could be Fb- (for Fb minus) or Fbdownwardspointingarrow?

    Anyway the message is clear.

    Cheers,
    Trevor

  3. I hate those ideas in which they wrongly associate exact science with human behavior.

    This, however, is genius. It was a pretty clever way of showing some of the forces that drive our motivation and work. I loved this article.

  4. Another great article James, very very well done indeed!!!

    I’m inspired by the 3rd rule which you stated that productivity is a balance of opposite force, it makes me realized that I’ve been chasing so much things in my life before.

    “Eliminate counter force, not to force yourself to put more force.”

    Thanks James. =)

  5. Thanks James, your articles are always so well thought out and useful. Imagine how productive you will be when one eventually utilises all 3 laws! Keep ‘em coming!

    -Dan

  6. Hi James,

    I love all your articles — thanks so much. This one is extra good! It’s so true and so interesting. I live by all this positive stuff and by using a name like “Newton” makes me feel, “Yeah, I just have to think like him and I can do it!” Really great!

  7. Great article James, your writings have really helped my productivity levels.

    Quick question, what app do you use for your drawings in your articles?

  8. Thanks, that was another helpful email. I am really enjoying them – obviously some more than others, but I always enjoy reading them and hearing about your own struggles has also been helpful. So keep up the good work, I am sure there are a lot of other people you are also helping with your work.

  9. Really interesting comparison James. That 2-minute rule is just perfect to get things moving. I also like how you are thanking contributors and acknowledging sources (as per your new resolutions). Your stuff just keeps getting better and better. Cheers!

  10. The law of physics put on for another good use. I remembered Newton’s laws for my school and uni exams and probably now I would remember them for life. We’ll done.

  11. Thanks James for sharing this intellectual article.

    I realized that all I got only way of second option for this I need to get motivation every time on work.If i fail in getting motivation,i faced defeats.But based on your second option it will be every easy to get success.

    I love this article.

  12. Ha wasn’t expecting that – that was dope! Kept it simple – and that’s what it’s about! Great way to start my day and I’m going to take these 3 core elements forward with me from now on.

    Thanks James!

  13. Excellent interpretation of facts, James. It is a crisp and powerful way to put things in right perspective. Thanks very much for the presentation.

  14. So I’m torn……do I go for Newton’s “rock star” look (love the link) or your hairstyle? You’re both super bright guys that I’d like to be more like.

    Seriously, great post and excellent follow through on your commitment to include more drawings.

    Regards, Don

  15. Wow! That is an excellent application. My biggest problem is getting started. I’ve always followed the 15-minute rule — set a timer for 15 minutes and do something. But I like your 2-minute rule better.

  16. I’m pretty sure that you will become a very nice and impressive writer and life
    coach, so keep up the good work and make us more educated by your very nice stuff :)

  17. Hi James,

    I really enjoy your articles, keep up the great work.

    Unfortunately, the second law is only partially correct, and I think this is a golden opportunity to help teach others the full form. The sum of the forces on a system is actually the time derivative of the linear momentum, i.e. F = d/dt (mv). http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/k-12/airplane/newton2c.html For a system with constant mass, that reduces to F = ma. But when the mass flow rate of the system is non-zero, you can use the chain rule to compute the full expression: F = mdot v + m a. I think you can pull both terms into your productivity analogy still. And you can also tie this into your analogy of the first law regarding the momentum of productivity, since force is the rate of change of the momentum. Another nice tidbit: work is defined as force times distance.

    Another term to consider is “impulse”: an instantaneous change in momentum. So a very small impulse in the beginning of your task may be enough to get you going. Other applicable terms include the resting coefficient of friction vs kinetic coefficient of friction: the resting coefficient is greater than the kinetic coefficient. http://www.pstcc.edu/departments/natural_behavioral_sciences/Web%20Physics/Experiment%2005web.htm

    All of these facts were hammered into my head while studying for my PhD qualifying exams, so it’s really interesting to see them applied them to productivity.

    • Thanks for sharing Corwin! Always nice to have a physics PhD in the audience. :)

      Interesting that you mention work being force applied over a distance. I was very close to writing about that example.

      Thanks for reading,
      James

  18. Hi James

    Good post!

    What I liked the most, though, were the graphics you are using. I’ve read a previous post which you describe them but you didn’t give any clues about how we could do the same. What do you do to draw it? Are you drawing by hand and scanning it or using a software?

    Best regards.

  19. Hi James.

    Excellent piece. I am not quite sure what are my opposing forces.

    Would you be able to give me a list of the most common opposing forces then I can isolate what could be pulling me back?

    I greatly appreciate your work.

    Thanks.

  20. I used to write a magazine column about technology, and the hardest part was always the opening sentence. I discovered that the best way for me to get past that was to write “This is the opening paragraph.” And then start on the second paragraph, where the meat of the article would begin. Sometimes when I was through, I discovered that the second paragraph worked just fine as an opening; other times, the opening paragraph was easy to write once the rest of the article was complete.

  21. You were doing great (even including the notion of vectors in the Second Law) until you reached the Third Law, then the analogy fell apart.

    The concept of equal and opposite forces is NOT about externally applied forces acting on a body. It is about forces that oppose the forces you apply. You push on a wall, the wall pushes back on you; if it didn’t, you’d fall through it. It has to do with maintaining equilibrium and balance.

    • This is a fair point and I thought about this (external vs. internal system) as I was drawing the images. In the end, I decided to stick with the analogy because the point wasn’t to give a physics lesson, but to use the general principle to get you to think about the opposing forces in your life. Do you simply try to power through them with more force? If you simplified and eliminated some of the opposing forces would it be easier to be productive?

      Hopefully I didn’t lose the message by making a less-than-perfect analogy. Thanks for reading!

  22. Dear James,

    I’ve been reading your articles and they are truly inspirational. This last one on Newton’s Law of Productivity really hit the WOW factor for me. True enough, even on a more simple level, when I work around my house, even though I didn’t really want to or started being lazy and tired, I find that once I begin, I’m doing more and more than the day permits and keep working until I’m exhausted – however, like I always say, a “happy” tired because I’m glad at what I was able to accomplish on my day off. Now, I need to apply that to other works in my life too!

  23. Really excellent article, intelligent thoughts elegantly articulated. I will be reading this a few times and endeavouring to practice the solutions offered. Thank you, James, please keep this tremendous work coming.

  24. Dear James,

    I’ve been reading on your blog and I have to say this is probably one of the greatest articles you’ve written. I mean what a revolutionary way to approach work and it just fits! I’m going to think deeply about my situation and apply it.

    Thanks,
    Sajed

  25. James,

    Thank you for taking the time to deliver another writing that is rich in wisdom.

    My inner dork fully appreciated Newton’s Laws an how they apply to our life.

    Your writings create clarity in my life each and every week. I’m really grateful to be apart of your fan base.

    All the best,
    Adam Duncan

  26. The visuals do help with the understanding of the laws. I enjoyed how you brilliantly apply Newton’s Laws to enhance the possibilities of continual growth in once life to avoid stagnation. Thank you!

  27. Love this post! One of the best ways I know to remove opposing forces for me is browser plugins that block your access to web sites during certain hours. It takes the “mindless surfing” exit path away.

  28. That moment when you realise what is making your life challenging and how to deal with it.

    “remove the opposing forces.”

    Thank you.

  29. Interesting concept. I’m an engineer, and I liked it but so you know Newtons Third Law ,if the x & y Axis is 0,0 Positive forces in the Y direction go up and Negative forces go down, X forces to the right are positive and negative forces to the left. The Physics of Productivity should be reversed.

    Just Saying!

  30. This is a great post James… beautifully written, easy to understand and right on point in today’s world of overwhelm and stress. I always remember what the late Zig Ziglar said, “Motivation follows the action” not the other way round.

    Start taking action and the motivation will soon flow.

    Thanks.

  31. James,

    Thanks you for your insights regarding the Newton’s Laws of Getting Stuff Done.

    Have you done some research and study regarding Quantum Physics? I would like to see your insights about how to apply Quantum Physics into our daily life.

    Would it be possible to do that? I will really appreciate.

    Debra

  32. James,

    I’ve been reading your articles for ages now, just want to thank you so much!! I’ve learned so much from you every week, you make me believe its all achievable.

    Cheers,
    Sinead

  33. WOW!!!!! Thanks James, this one spoke crystal clear to me as I continue moving forward with my life. But I want to take this opportunity to let you know that I read all your mails, over and over, when I am riding the subway or the bus.

    I started to read them when I was googling: motivation to lose weight, I was back then struggling emotionally and physically with pain, so when I hit search, Bam!!! I read your name for the very first time in the Huffington Posts, from then, I went to your website and then search for you on YT.

    The results and benefits in reading all your mails? Ok, let me see: I lost 70 pounds, I eat clean, go to the gym 6 times a week, good grades in college, and the list goes on and on.

    You may think I am very young, but no, I am a single 56 years old mom and empty nester. Life is wonderful with its ups and downs and this mail about the laws of motion, is helping me to continue improving my life journey.

    Thank you,
    Norma Chavez

  34. Thank you James for your wonderful blog post. I rarely comment on blog posts but this one was really helpful.

    Thank you for adding value.

  35. Hi James – Great article. I’ve used a variation of the 2-minute rule for some time now to avoid procrastination. I start my day by accomplishing something tiny, regardless of what it is. Maybe it’s taking the garbage cans out to the curb. Maybe it’s returning a phone call. Just that one “checked box” leads to an entire day of productivity.

  36. I am very unknowingly doing just that; inching forward, however little is possible on an occasion. Just Google arvindatma for my invention.

  37. I always subscribed to the idea of working smart instead of working hard. Newton’s theory explains with clarity what working smart is and how to work smart.

  38. Thanks for taking the time to share this, James. As a concept engineer, your article appeals on all kinds of levels!

  39. Thank you for a wonderful article. It’s exactly what I need right now: to get started, choose what and where to put my energy and to let go of any physical or mental quicksand. It’s a great formula to get back on track to finish daily and project tasks.

  40. Insightful, succinct, mind expanding,visual and simple to apply… Just Brilliant ! We’ll I suppose it should be it’s Einstein after all…

  41. Beautiful! Well done it all goes to prove the UNITY in Cosmos from the micro to the macro all are complying the Universal Laws. As Ali the founder of Sufism in Islam and prophet Muhammad’s nephew and son in law said All knowledge is but a SINGLE POINT.

  42. Dear James,

    Since physics “almost rules” the world, this article is spot on. Here in Uganda (and I think most of Africa), we tend to overlook these truths. Your illustrations with diagrams make it even simple and fun to understand the facts stated.
    Thanks!

    • Thanks for this simple presentation. I’ve been using the 3 Laws to encourage my ESL students to write. It’s an excellent motivator just knowing there’s an empirical truth behind the approach!

      The diagrams are excellent!

      Keep it simple.

      Peter

  43. Awesome and simple — I’m so happy I found this site! You talk about everything I’m struggling with and love in such a straight forward manner that still makes an impact. Look forward to being an avid reader here!

  44. Great idea using physics as a metaphor for behavior. I am currently reading a book that talks about the “magic” of the universe and how if you pretend something will happen or has happen it will happen.

    This article is similar in that it promotes getting started (objects in motion) but without the B.S. of talking about a magical universe.

    That was the long way for me to say I love the article.

  45. In my experience, “powering through” – as I’ve done too many times to count – only leads to burnout, exhaustion and sometimes depression. Your advice to simplify is really wonderful and I agree whole-heartedly. Focus on the important stuff, remove distractions, and be sure to take care of your own body, well-being and loved ones before any work.

    Thanks James! Really enjoy your blog!

  46. Good analogies on laws 1 and 2, but it falls apart on the 3rd law. The 3rd law analogy abandons physics entirely. There should be an equal and opposite reaction to your increase in Fa or addition of Fc.

    My point in making this comment is not to be overly critical, rather it is to suggest that the analogy with the 3rd law is incomplete, and if you dig deeper you can probably find the true analogy. Do it for us, your readers! If you increase Fa, or add Fc, is there an equal and opposite force (a consequence)? If you decrease Fb, does something automatically happen to Fa?

    • Fair points, Jamie! And I appreciate you holding me to high standard. I’ll try to raise the bar next time. Thanks for reading!

  47. I remember reading something about Newton’s law of productivity, but your article is more elaborate and clear. Thanks James for this insightful article. You’ve helped me identify my opposing forces: overwork, stress, insufficient sleep and procrastination. Thank you, James.

  48. Made me feel bad that I was procrastinating by reading this article! Ok, I’ll start now by actually opening the file I am supposed to be working on! :)

Leave a comment Share your knowledge and experience.