Principle of Least Effort

July 2021

Smart and efficient, not lazy

I sat besides a stream of water in complete tranquility wondering about life, its purpose, “who am I?” and such esoteric thoughts. Abruptly, my left brain kicked in and started wondering about well, more left-brain things, like how water finds its own level and how it flows along the path of least resistance. That took me back to my college days when I first learnt about the path of least resistance in the context of electrons flowing through a wire creating electricity. This concept stayed close to my heart as I naively related it to my own disposition of doing things that took the least effort. Later on in life I figured that this Principle of Least Effort (POLE) is actually prevalent in all of nature. From flowing water to electricity, the apple falling down due to gravity, human behaviour, eating habits, decision-making and the like, all follow POLE. 

I know what you’re thinking. By telling me to follow the path of least effort is he advocating laziness? It surely sounds far too relaxed and carefree. Let me assure that is not what this is about. Even as you look for the simplest way, remember it is not the negligent or irresponsible way. POLE is not telling you to eliminate difficult things nor is it asking you to choose the easy way all the time. POLE asks you to be smart and find out how you can reduce the effort required to achieve your goals. That way, you save bandwidth and energy to complete more tasks efficiently. POLE is not telling you how you should behave, it tells you how you do behave as you try to conserve your effort over time. Remember, POLE is about smart and efficient working, not lazy working. You will recall that we have written earlier about how your brain has system 1 and system 2 thinking and how most of the time we use system 1 as it is easy, quick, intuitive and delivers acceptable results.

When chats were first introduced, we were all on ICQ (I know your age if you remember ICQ), AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Pager and the likes. ROFL, ASL, B4N, and BRB were a few abbreviations we used. No, I’m not telling you their full forms. No POLE. Go figure for yourself. But don’t be surprised when I tell you that it is POLE that makes us use short forms and abbreviate longer words or smaller phrases so it becomes easier for the speaker. This is how mathematics became math, airplanes became planes, 'as soon as possible, ASAP and 'I don’t know’, IDK. Have you heard of Zipf’s Law? Simply speaking, it is a take off from POLE where German linguist George Zipf figured that owing to our tendency to communicate efficiently with least effort, “the most common word occurs twice as frequently as the second, three times as frequently as the third, and so on. In English language, the most frequently occurring word ‘the’ appears twice as much as ‘of’, the second most frequently used word and thrice as much as ‘and’ and so on. Millenials and Gen Z have their own ROFL equivalents. The other day I asked my teenage daughter to fetch a glass of water. Her response: “CBA”. Upon enquiry, CBA stands for ‘can’t be asked’ which upon further enquiry stands for ‘Leave me alone as I’m too lazy to be doing that’. I responded with ‘Cap’, which stands for “It can’t be true; you’re making it up”. See, I keep up with the ‘in-thing’ and can handle this generation’s slangs though truth be told I had to get that glass of water myself. 

So, we have made language easier. What other examples of POLE do we encounter regularly? 

Advise. We readily rely on advise given to us by a friend rather than any expert because a friend is readily available. An expert; you might have to expend energy in getting to one. 

Investments. In my two decades and a half of experience in equity markets, I can assure you that people rely far too much on ‘tips’ and ‘ideas’ rather than invest their hard earned money based on deep research. 

Gadgets. When televisions were first introduced, I had to walk to the TV to change channels and/or volume. Then we got a remote so I didn’t have to get up from my couch. Now, the remote has been replaced by an app on my phone. Simultaneously, I’m befriending Siri so I can simply utter the words and let the magic happen all by itself. 

Travelators. Have you ever been to an airport that has a lot of walking to do? Voila, we now have horizontal escalators so we don’t have to expend energy unnecessarily. Escalators at least took you from one floor to the next, these travelators are the next level to escalators. 

Golf. Most golf courses are now littered with golf carts. We don’t even want to walk the few kilometres to finish our 18 holes anymore. What’s next? A cricket cart so we don’t have to run for making runs?

Food. You are more likely to consume what’s conveniently available (you don’t want to hear it, but its called junk food) spending fewer calories to get it and actually add extra calories and fat to your body consuming it. 

This list can go on. Think of this deeply and you realise that the entire industrialisation edifice is built on the foundation of expending less energy while achieving more of the task at hand. Production lines, mining, transportation, retailing, e-commerce are all examples of getting more done with lesser energy i.e. more efficiency. In fact, this is one of the reasons for human progress and technology has played an incredibly important part. 

What’s your key takeaway from all this? With POLE as your reality, there are two obvious ways to achieve greatness and rise above average. 

1. Do what comes naturally to you, what takes the least effort. This is your path to achieving greatness. Van Gogh tried a variety of professions before he went back to his natural calling, painting, and became ‘Van Gogh’. Even though he died in penury, recently one of his paintings, “Labourer in a field” sold for US$81 million. 

2. Accept your natural instinct to get things done by expending least effort and then to consciously push yourself to achieve more. This is how you ensure you regularly exercise, this is how Einstein achieved much of what he did. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer”. It’s what you have to do when you go against your natural grain of sticking with what’s conventionally known and accepted. 

Choosing to do something difficult goes against your inherent POLE instinct. To make matters worse, going against POLE implicitly makes you do something that doesn’t follow the crowd. Remember, we are all inclined to walk the path of least effort. But, I’m sure you’ve reached your station in life by not letting these inconveniences stop you. 

Robert Frost puts it best: 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - 

I took the one less traveled by, 

And that has made all the difference.

I tried explaining POLE to my teenage daughter and she still thinks I want her to become lazy. Let me get back to parenting her in a smart, and not lazy, way.