Many of us have this mindset of hard work equals success. We find gratification in the fact that our work makes us tired and stressed, feel like we are contributing to society, fulfilling our duty. But what if there was a better way to do it?
In this article I will propose ideas for how we can work more effectively by putting in less effort, explaining the benefits and potential limitations.
We tend to see problems as barriers (something which impedes the progress of our work such as writer’s block), things we must exert our energy to remove before doing anything else. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Sometimes we can ignore the problem and move on, and a solution will naturally arise, or progress in other areas renders the issue irrelevant.
- Less stress. When confronting a problem we tend to exert a lot of energy trying to solve it. We feel it bars our progress, but it doesn’t have to. We can make progress in another part of our work and ignore the problem altogether.
- Leveraging our actions. In this way we work on multiple problems at once (although indirectly). As we go through our work, we are subconsciously on the look out for solutions (as your brain focuses on unclosed loops). It is often the case that we find solutions to things while doing something completely unrelated (think about losing something and then randomly finding it a week later).
- Our subconscious solves things better. Our subconscious minds have more neuronal bandwidth, meaning more information from disparate sources can be processed, leading to better, more creative solutions. This is called the Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect.
- We make more progress. If we do not allow barriers to stop our work, but rather ‘flow’ around them (and work on something else) then we can make more progress. We are allowing the hard things to gradually be solved by our subconscious, while directing our attentions to easy tasks which require conscious thought and action. (it has actually been shown that simple decisions are best left to the conscious, and more complex ones, such as buying a house, are better left to the unconscious).
Water is an apt metaphor for this approach. When it encounters a barrier (a problem or more loosely anything that impedes the progress of our work) it flows around it, and makes progress in another direction, all the while whittling away at this barrier until the obstruction is removed.
- Problems with exact boundaries. Such a method will not work for problems with precise and clearly defined parameters to work within (like a math sum), the unconscious mind is not as precise as the conscious.
- Problems that require doing. This is obviously not some wonder solution for all problems. It is more geared towards mental problems (an idea is required, or there is a lack of ideas). Unfortunately, your subconscious isn’t going to wash the dishes.
- Increased stress? Our mind tends to obsess over unclosed loops, which may make us anxious if not solved (the Zeigarnik effect). It is therefore important that we ensure we store these problems in a trusted system where they will get addressed and adopt a carefree mindset; if something is truly important, we will find a solution for it, if not, it will be forgotten (and rightly so).
- Problems that are urgent. I wouldn’t recommend solving urgent problems like this. While efficient, it isn’t the fastest way of doing things.
Following the path of least resistance
I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else
This is a quote from one of the foremost 20th century sociologists, Niklas Luhmann, pioneer of the Zettelkasten method. Through his system, he produced over 70 books and 400 scholarly articles over the span of his life. It is safe to say he did quite well with his method (you can read more about this here).
What is relevant to us in this blog post is the fact that he only did what was easiest; his workflow followed the path of least resistance. He would have a host of unfinished articles at any given time, but instead of conducting arduous research to make progress, he merely read that which he found most interesting.
When he encountered something relevant to one of these unfinished articles (the problems he was working on), he added it as a short note. These notes would build up, and over time he would give them structure; there is a sense of organic growth of the articles. Once they reach a critical mass, where there are enough ideas, he would begin to write. All he had to do was give substance to the already collected ideas. It is easy, and therefore effortless.
We too can calibrate our workflow to facilitate such progress. Keep a list of unfinished problems, and collect relevant information under them. Solve them gradually (unconsciously) as you randomly encounter knowledge that helps you progress.
During this process you are doing the simple, precise things, which require conscious deliberation; following the path of least resistance, and making very efficient progress.
A state of flow
This style of work is about reducing friction, which facilitates sessions of flow. Flow is a state where work becomes effortless, we are utterly engaged in our work and seamlessly glide between tasks. It is all about building momentum. This approach to solving problems removes friction in a few ways:
- By leaving the difficult things to the unconscious, we encounter less barriers. This allows us to build momentum and reduces frustration.
- The majority of our conscious efforts are directed at simple tasks, instead of wasted on the amorphous problems we encounter. These tasks are clearly defined, meaning we know exactly what to do. This greatly reduces friction, and therefore allows effortless progress.
- We do what is easiest, or most interesting. We are driven forward by curiosity (or laziness), and therefore find it easier to build up momentum.
- The simplicity of our systems reduces friction between different tasks. They form one seamless and flexible workflow.
Working in a state of flow allows us to make more progress, faster, and more effortlessly. It subverts that which is hard, still addressing it, but incorporating it into our work in such a way that we do not have to directly address these arduous problems.
By not directly addressing amorphous and challenging problems we face, we can get much more work done in a flow state, and even find better solutions to these problems. While it might not always be a feasible approach, some problems are too urgent to delay, it is in many cases not only doable, but vastly beneficial.