The Principle of Least Effort

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From a decent article on work and consulting:

Over a century ago, the philosopher Guillaume Ferrero proposed that humans operate on the Principle of Least Effort: given several paths, we pick the easiest. More recently, Harvard psychologist Shawn Anchor suggested that the behavior we choose is the one that’s just 20 seconds easier to start.

Amen. Here’s more on that. And now… work.

What you need to understand about work

There are some deeply motivated people in offices. There might even be some true “A-Players,” sure.

The fact is, though: most people are lazy. They’re not motivated. They are there for the check, because the check is what you need in a capitalism.

The Principle of Least Effort is very, very real.

We’ve all had lazy co-workers.

But there’s a bigger issue.

The protections of work

Most of the way we conceptualize first-world work is a series of protections designed to benefit the Principle of Least Effort.


Meetings: Waste a bunch of time talking in circles about the same shit. This prevents actual work and achievement of deliverables from happening, though.

E-Mail: Be lazy. Don’t go speak to people. Don’t walk 20 feet even though face-to-face would be 34x more effective. Hide behind it. Put the negative comments and the veiled barbs there.

Calls: Same as meetings — talk in circles about the same shit everyone knows while 3/4 of people aren’t listening. A dog is barking because goddamn Betsy won’t mute her phone. Real work is not happening.

Offsites: Complete circle jerks in the name of “bonding.” Trust falls happen, and three weeks later, everyone is back to under-cutting and snarking. Work is mostly about control, you see. It’s not really about productivity or teamwork. That’s just what we say it’s about because admitting it’s about control would be weird.

Change Management: Have you ever seen a change management process be effective? Probably not. You know why? Because it’s one of the only things at work that directly violates The Principle of Least Effort. Admittedly we think change is harder than it really is, but change management in a work context is terrifying to people. Your role (self-worth!) is about to shift. You may have a new boss! New responsibilities! It’s actual effort. It’s the Principle of Most Effort. People work to thwart that at every turn. They bury it in process. They forget about it because something new and shiny came along. There’s a “business model pivot,” so now we’ll put this “HR thing” on hold.

To remember

Anything that takes “Most Effort” at most companies will be:

  • Ignored
  • Made into something else
  • Choked in process so that someone can control it
  • Half-assed
  • Abandoned

Anything that requires “Least Effort” will be:

  • Embraced
  • Coddled
  • Done repeatedly
  • Hidden behind “We’ve always done it this way”
  • Put on a pedestal and worshiped as a false idol

Am I saying here that everyone is lazy?


Some people are awesome and driven.

Am I saying that many people are lazy?


Am I also saying that how we design work is a complete cluster fuck?

Yes, I am also saying that.

Would I maybe argue that the goal of work is never productivity, but rather appearing busy at doing stuff that barely matters or takes effort?

Indeed — I actually sat next to a couple at happy hour last night who both came to admit this.

If you ever need to figure out why something did or didn’t happen/work out at your office, think first of the Principle of Least Effort. It’s probably the explainer you are looking for.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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