The Path of Least Resistance

Like most things in nature (water, electricity) humans tend to follow the past of least resistance. Another way to put it is that we tend to default to conserving energy.

Given the options, we tend to take the path that requires the least amount of effort/thought. Yes I’m saying we are all lazy. If you don’t believe it, consider whether you would rather watch a good TV show or clean the house. It isn’t your fault, blame biology. The tendency to conserve energy makes sense. What if there’s a tiger around the corner waiting to chase you?

One weapon against this is will power, which we all know is fairly limited but works. This is what stops us (well most of us) from just sitting around all day and not accomplishing anything. To take another physics analogy, we also follow the law of motion, which for this purpose can be paraphrased as :

“things at rest tend to stay at rest and things in motion tend to stay in motion”

That is, once you have some momentum, the path of least resistence often changes, and it is easier to keep doing the thing you are already doing whether that’s resting or moving.

So with some theory behind us, my suggestion is to always assume you and your future self will take the past of least resistance. People are over optimistic about what they think they will accomplish. This view point brings you back down to earth.

If you have 4 hrs left on a project, the optimistic future planner in us assumes we can knock that over in half a day tomorrow. But seriously, if we are to assume we will take the path of least resistance for the entire day on this project what is actually reasonable? Maybe 15 mins assuming we arrange that time in advanced? Better to get 15 mins in, then plan to get the full 4 hrs in and to do none (and then feel really bad about it!). At the end of the day you have actually progressed. This way of thinking is a real cognitive barrier. Because it goes like this:

(A) “I could have done 4 hours on this project but I didn’t do anything on it. I’ll definitely get 4 hours in tomorrow”. Or worse yet, “what’s wrong with me, why do I keep procrastinating? I’ll never get this done”.

Versus:

(B) “I did 15 minutes on the project, yippee and now there’s only 3hr 45mins to go”. Perhaps better yet that 15 minutes has made siginificant progress on the project and now there’s only another hour to go?

Think about the difference in working week (5 days):

  • Scenario (A) means we have 4 hours left because we planned and failed to complete the whole project on any given day.
  • Scenario (B) means we have competed 75 minutes (5 days, 15 mins a day) of the project.

There’s a really important side effect of Scenario B. That 15 minutes each day is doing a lot things in the background that do not happen with scenario A, for example:

  • You are building the thought process, ideas, cognitive pathways to solve the problems associated with the project
  • You are thinking about the project outside of the 15 minutes you actively work on it (subconsciously) and you your brain is actually doing some background processing for the next day.
  • You are succeeding in small increments (not failing) and therefor eating the elephant one bite at a time.
  • You might identifier any blockers or additional items you need to do in that 15 mins that you can progress independently of the main project.

An impressive trick, considering that often you will find this approach will solve the problem faster than you anticipated, assuming it isn’t something that is purely time based, as most projects are a mix of creativity, work, and follow up.

One final thought. Remember that any estimate you have on the length of time to complete project, can often be optimistic. The 4 hour project might end up taking 10 hours. So scenario B (15 minute increments) will bring that to light a lot faster than starting the entire project in Scenario A and finding out the elephant is a lot larger than you thought!