It is simply a fact that, in general, human beings naturally prefer to take the shortest, simplest, easiest path between two points. You could even say, laziness defines us.
At school, the majority of students find the easiest (least effort) way to get the results they want. Not only academically, but also in terms of extracurricular activities. If you ask any high school student who the easiest teachers are – or the easiest classes – they’ll know. At college/university, students will knowingly do the least amount of work to ensure they pass a paper (provided that is the result they seek). At work, employees will resist all suggestion that a project should be delivered differently to achieve a more effective or better quality outcome, if it involves more work. At home, we fall into the trap of putting less and less effort into our relationships and home lives as we become more comfortable in them.
But the funny thing about this trait is that we don’t realise it.
No one thinks they’re lazy – we all think we’re working hard, and we all develop internal dialogues – quite sophisticated strategies – that reaffirm why the alternate destination, the longer route, is a fool’s errand.
Interesting, this also means we don’t expect laziness from others, which is ironic. We design products, systems, public policy, all with the expectation that most people are fundamentally hard-working, rational, intelligent beings, who will logically explore alternatives and come to the decisions that are in their own best interests. And yet, over and over again, this is shown not to be the case.
In addition to this tendency, we are constantly presented with the outcomes achieved, success gained, wealth obtained, happiness achieved by others who deliberately set out to override their own tendencies – who set up habits and rituals to prevent it from taking over. These people we describe as ‘lucky’ or ‘freakish’. We don’t observe their success and say “I’m lazy and they aren’t” we use words that don’t diminish our own sense of self-worth – which makes sense – but absolutely means that we never grasp the fact that (with some exceptions around genetically determined talents) we could achieve the same thing with a bit of effort!
And even in the case of raw-talent, this can be overcome by the application of deliberate practice and hard work!
I’ve come to think of this tendency as the natural order of the human condition. Assuming it is true makes predicting group behaviour much more straight-forward, in almost any context. It even holds predictive capacity at an individual level.
And what makes exceptional human beings exceptional? They can resist this tendency, consistently, and for long periods of time. It is delayed gratification on performance enhancing drugs, because it isn’t just not doing something you’d love right now because you’ll get something better later – its actively choosing to do something hard now, to avoid getting the status quo. Its a much more challenging mental equation even if it draws on the same parts of our brain power.
Have you ever witnessed a colleague doing something ‘quick and easy’ despite suggesting that a slightly more thoughtful approach would get better results?
Have you ever knowingly not learned how to do something new because you know that eventually you’ll be asked to do it (or expected to do it) more frequently?
Did you skate through school or university with ‘just enough’ for what you needed?
If you answered yes to any of these, I’d love to hear from you!