Making laziness work hard for you

Surf your laziness to success, instead of swimming against it.

Posted Jun 07, 2010

The glassy waves of Santa Monica Bay caught the late afternoon sun and broke it into thousands of shimmering lights that dazzled the eye. But I'd been swimming all afternoon and was too tired to appreciate the spectacle. Three hundred yards offshore, drained after a strenuous work out, I yearned to sit on my oversized towel under a beach umbrella and relax while sipping ice cold diet coke stored in my cooler. However, summoning the energy to swim three hundred yards against the slight undertow suddenly seemed impossible. I treaded water and considered my options. I could swim parallel to the shore for a few minutes to escape the undertow, or I could catch a wave and body surf my way in. I could also try to catch the lifeguard's eye and have her paddle out with a float to fetch me. Choosing the middle path between exertion and humiliation, I surveyed the sets of waves advancing towards me. Timing one wave just right, I rode the swell all the way in to the beach, where I crawled out of the water and collapsed, face first, into the hot sand.

By making the ocean do all the hard work for me, I was surfing two kinds of waves. The first, a product of mother nature, was a real wave. The second, a product of human nature, was the wave of laziness that had overcome me.

As hard at it may be to accept, evolution has hard wired laziness into our brains, and therefore into our basic natures. The reason is simple: as living organisms our only real function is to convert energy-- in the form of food, into information--in the form of genes ,that spread (as offspring) as far and wide as possible. The less energy we expend, the more favorable the food-in-to-gene-out ratio, and the more successfully we'll compete with other humans and other species trying to propagate their genes.

Psychologist Denny Proffitt of the University of Virginia calls this drive for energy efficiency "economy of action." His research has shown that our brains automatically distort our perceptions to lead us towards economical actions. In one experiment, Proffitt found that test subjects who were tired from physical exertion perceived the slope of a hill to be steeper than the same hill appeared to subjects who were well rested. Believing the hill to be steeper than it actually was, the tired test subjects were prone to walk around the hill than to spend extra energy climbing over it.

A similar perceptual shift caused me to see three hundred yards of water as a much longer distance, motivating me to look for less "expensive" ways to get to my beach towel and diet coke.

We ignore our natural laziness at our peril. As a senior executive in fields as diverse as aerospace, entertainment and national security, I‘ve seen one promising initiative after another crash and burn because the initiative's champion thought he could get people to work hard to change their ways. For example, I've attended dozens of executive retreats that identified fabulous ideas for saving money or growing revenue, but none of these big ideas ever succeeded because, after the initial enthusiasm of the retreats faded, people slid back into familiar, easy ways of doing things. Major behavior change simply requires too much work.

Visionaries who do succeed in bringing about major changes intuitively understand that people are lazy. Therefore, these visionaries work with natural slothfulness rather than fighting it. Successful change agents break big pursuits into thousands of smaller efforts that seem as easy-and even fun-as possible. My brother Bill, in his ten year quest at Harvard to discover how the AIDS virus works, divided the task into many small steps. He urged his team to look for just one small new bit of information each day, which, when gathered, would be celebrated by the whole lab. Bill also convinced his team that their job was to piece together a serial killer's modus operandi. This approach made the painstaking task of understanding the virus fun as well as "easy." Ultimately my brother's lab gained major insights into the virus's biology, speeding the development of anti-HIV drugs.

Other highly successful people stay focused on big jobs by decomposing them into many small parts. Ronald Regan lined out each meeting on his calendar right after concluding it, and took great satisfaction at the end of the day surveying the long list of line outs. IBM executive Carla Goode observed that the most successful leaders at her company "ate the elephant in chewable chunks instead of trying to swallow it whole."

The need to break daunting tasks into many small, easy tasks explains why successful transformations, such as IBM's shift from selling products to services, take so long and why all big bangs have long fuses: it's nearly impossible to succeed without taking many small steps, and small steps are slow steps. Our hard wired laziness also explains why ambitious personal pursuits, such as losing 30 pounds, changing careers or kicking a nicotine habit, usually fail: we realize (if we're honest with ourselves) that we're lazy some of the time, but we underestimate just how lazy our brain-in its never ending quest to conserve energy-- wants to be all of the time. As a result we lay out unworkable plans, such as radical diets, that assume we'll work harder at changing behavior than we ultimately will.

So...if you want to accomplish big things in your personal or professional life, avoid strategies that promise to pay off in a big way quickly. These strategies are flawed because they ignore someone's laziness-yours!

Hard work pays off in the future
Laziness pays off now

  Steven Wright

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