April 1

The Path Of Least Resistance. It’s Not Laziness. It’s Human Nature.

The path of least resistance is what makes rivers run crooked – Elbert Hubbard
  • When you ask Google Maps for directions, the first recommended choice is often the fastest route between two points.
  • John Atanasoff built the first electronic digital computer because it was too much work for him to perform calculations manually.
  • Water tends to flow downhill naturally. It’s an uphill (pun intended) battle to direct water flow upwards.

Can you spot the common thread running through the three examples above?

Answer: Nature tends to follow the path of least resistance. Why? Because it’s easy to. But more importantly, because that’s just how we’re made.


This morning my alarm went off well before dawn. I gingerly stumbled away from my bed, trying to beat brain fog and remember what day it was. And then it struck me like lightning. My training plan called for me to run a 20-miler that day. Ugh!

I peeked through the windows and saw branches from tall trees billowing away in the wind. Not ideal. I get through my training by running loops around my neighborhood (yes, I’m that crazy lady). The blustery conditions meant I’d have to run against the wind at least 50% of the time.

I had absolutely no desire to leave the cozy comfort of my warm bed to venture into the dark, cold, and gusty streets. My brain, suddenly (and surprisingly) razor-sharp, provided me with a laundry list of reasons for why I should stay in: running against the wind was going to be so much harder, or I could get sick, or be chased by raccoons, or shot by neighborhood vigilante (too much cable news), or collapse from exhaustion.  

In short, my brain was doing all it could to ensure I followed the path of least resistance. It told me I could simply turn the alarm off and go back to bed, and the world would be none the wiser since no one, but I knew about my 20-mile run plan. More importantly, no one else cared.

Internal conflict

But then a tiny (very tiny) sliver of my brain—I’ll call this Team B—implored me to get out and run. Its campaign promise was short: I’d be glad later, and for much longer, if I did what I was supposed to do that morning, i.e., Run.

The battle between getting out and staying in waged in my mind for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality, it was only for a couple of minutes. Begrudgingly, I listened to Team B, laced up my shoes, overcame the path of least resistance, and ran.

The struggle was both physical—the wind pushing against me as I jogged, and mental—my brain reluctant to go along, like a meat-and-potatoes guy forced to eat sushi for dinner. Anyway, a few miles in, I settled into the run and then forgot about the resistance because I now had other things to worry about—achy feet, hydration, and fatigue.

Eventually, the training run was done. The raccoons had stayed away, and the vigilante too (probably lulled by their own path of least resistance). And Team B rewarded me with a healthy dose of endorphins that made me feel good for the rest of the day.

Overcoming resistance is newsworthy

I recount this incident not to brag or to make an exhibition of my superior willpower. The truth is this: it is rare for me to follow Team B’s instructions, even when doing so is much better for my well-being. My waking up early and going out for a long run is an out-of-the-ordinary event, so it’s news worth reporting on.

Deviating from the path of least resistance is an anomaly, not the rule, not just for me but for most of us. Even when we know more effort can get us to a better place, we struggle to overcome the path of least resistance. And there’s an excellent reason for that. We are governed by an unwritten law discovered by Prof. Zipf: The principle of least effort.

George Kingsley Zipf, Ph.D., was a Harvard Linguistics professor who published his seminal work  Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology shortly before he died. Based on his observations of natural phenomena, Prof. Zipf concluded that humans, like most of nature, are wired to take the path of least resistance to minimize their level of effort.

The principle of least effort

According to Prof. Zipf, two factors guide human behavior:

a) A desire to maximize benefit

b) A desire to minimize effort

Admit it or not, we are usually looking for ways to get the most benefits with the least effort. When we find an action that begets us something useful, we tend to perform that action frequently. This repetition, in turn, makes it easier for us to complete the activity, eliminating any resistance we may have felt initially.

One of the examples Prof. Zipf uses to underline his theory is the evolution of language.

A language with only one word

Like a handyman owning a single multipurpose tool that could cut, clip, saw, hammer, drill, etc., imagine knowing a language that has just one magic word that could mean whatever you want it to mean. What a ridiculously easy thing it would be for you to learn to speak the language (word)? There would be no complex vocabulary words to learn, no word associations, or mnemonic tricks to aid recall.

Now, let’s consider the other side of this language. Since the whole point of language and speech is to convey a meaning, think of the effort it will take you (the speaker) to share your idea using a single word. Also, consider the listener (or, as Prof. Zipf refers to the role, the auditor) who needs to understand and respond to you. They probably have the most challenging job in the world because they have to find the correct interpretation of a word that could mean a million different things.

Prof. Zipf’s theory is that both parties—the speaker and the auditor—will try to economize, i.e., reach their objectives with the least effort. Therefore, language will be pruned to use the fewest number of words that provide the most precise meaning. This explains why most languages, even those with vast vocabularies, have just a few hundred commonly used words.

Zipf’s law

To illustrate how a few words tend to dominate communication, Prof. Zipf analyzed some popular texts. He found a correlation between the rank of a word (how many times it is used in the text) and the frequency (the actual number of times it appears). This distribution, also known as Zipf’s law or zeta distribution, is usually represented as a simple sloping line and shows the inverse relationship between rank and frequency.

For example, in the 260,000-word book Ulysses by James Joyce, there are less than 30,000 unique words. The higher-ranked words (‘the,’ ‘all,’ ‘of,’ ‘and’) appear thousands of times, while the lower-ranking words appear very infrequently.

Over 80% of all communication (text and speech) is made up of just 18% of the vocabulary words. The underlying principle is clear: The writer, the reader, and the language all operate on one maxim: Least effort, maximum efficiency.

But least effort does not mean doing the bare minimum every minute of the day. Sometimes, we tend to go above and beyond. Usually, it’s not because we’re feeling particularly generous, but for a much more mundane and practical reason—the same reason that causes plump squirrels to work hard.

Why fat squirrels collect acorns

Squirrels gain fat in the fall months after feasting on all the fruits, berries, and nuts on which they can lay their paws. Ironically, the fall season is when the squirrels are most active: darting around (more than usual), finding and hiding acorns to tide them through winter. Doesn’t this contradict the law of least effort in theory? It’s harder to scurry around when chubby, right? And also, why bother with saving acorns in the fall season when parks and gardens are littered with squirrel food?

There’s a good reason.

Squirrels, or for that matter, nature is calculating. If the squirrels don’t gather the fallen acorns from their habitat in autumn, their search for food may need them to traverse longer distances in the cold winter months, threatening their very survival. Nature understands that it’s easier to trade off a little effort now for a better life later. The goal is to minimize overall effort in life.

Why we adopt the path of least resistance

Like the squirrel, sometimes that means we do more today than we absolutely need to. Shelving our desire to buy a Ferrari and instead funneling those funds into a 401K isn’t so much a great sacrifice but an insurance policy we buy for ourselves, so we don’t have to work later in life.

The bottom line is this: In deciding how much to do, we estimate the bare minimum we need to do over the course of our life, making some reasonable assumptions along the way.

What does least effort look like in real life?

We see the path of least resistance in all aspects of life. Here are some examples:

Search engines

The joke is that you could bury a dead body on page 3 of Google’s search results, and no one will find it. Google’s search engine keeps constantly modifying its algorithms to ensure users’ searches are answered within the first few hits on the search page. Thanks to the path of least resistance, no one cares to look beyond the first search results page.

Grocery stores

Companies pay grocery stores premiums for shelf space and product placement. As you walk the grocery store aisles, you’ll find the most expensive products at eye level. Customers often won’t care to look for products on the top or bottom shelves because it’s too much effort.

Websites and user interfaces

Thanks to the principle of least effort, users often leave web pages if they are required to click multiple times or navigate through busy screens. The average length of time users spend on websites is 15 seconds.

The above are just a few examples of how we succumb to the path of least resistance. It is really our default mode. So, how then, or is it even possible to overcome the path of least resistance and rise above mediocrity?

How to make the path of least resistance work for you

As is evident, it’s in our innate nature to apply as little effort as needed to our actions.

So, instead of pushing through in the hope of using our unreliable willpower as I did on my run, a better strategy would be to design our environment knowing how susceptible we are to the path of least resistance. In the spirit of turning lemons we’ve been given into lemonade,  here are some examples of how we can use the principle of least effort to our advantage.

Eat better

Let’s say you want to eat better. The single most important thing you can do is stock ready-to-eat, healthy foods at eye level in your refrigerator and pantry. Author B J Fogg describes his “super-fridge” in his book Tiny Habits. He recounts how he spends his weekend prepping and loading healthy meals into his refrigerator. Then, by virtue of the law of least resistance, it’s easier for him to reach for what’s in front of him and eat something healthy rather than search around the house for junk food.

Attract an audience

Good content creators and site designers are mindful of the path of least resistance when designing their web pages. Knowing how flimsy their audience’s attention is, they tend to display their most engaging content front and center on their websites. And as long as they keep refreshing and redelivering appealing content, their audiences stay longer on the site because the alternative of scrounging the internet for more stuff would require the audience to do more work. (Yes, this is why social media platforms are so successful. Unfortunately, they’ve understood and exploited the concept.)

Improve focus

The simplest way I found to get my teenager to spend less time on her phone is by asking her to leave her phone across the hallway rather than in her room. Her inertia to get up and walk the fifty feet from her room to the hallway is usually too hard for her to overcome. It’s as simple as that. By the way, this works well on adults too.

These are just a few examples, but I’m sure you get the point. The situations are many. The solution is one: Rely on systems, not willpower, to overcome the path of least resistance and use the path of least resistance as a tool to rise above mediocrity.


By default, unless there are genuinely good reasons, we tend not to deviate from the path of least resistance. Even when we seem to go over and above the bare minimum, like squirrels saving acorns for a cold winter, or a couple eschewing a fancy car in favor of saving for their retirement, our actions are motivated by our natural tendency to minimize overall effort in life.

That said, we weren’t born to be mediocre. The best way to sidestep our limitations is by designing systems around us that would allow us to use the law of least effort to our advantage.

We can never eliminate resistance. It will never go away. But we can outsmart it, and we can enlist allies that are as powerful as it is. Steven Pressfield.



  • Interesting article. I know of an antidote that, for many, is (or could be) a genuine problem: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I call myself ‘OC’ but not OCD, because my strict attention to detail doesn’t cause me problems; on the contrary, it helps me produce the highest quality sewing of which I’m capable. I’m a seamstress with 60+ years experience, and the items I produce as as close to perfect as I can make them. There is no “good enough” in my efforts, except perhaps for a rag that I’m hemming to stop the raveling along the edges so that I can continue to use it a while longer. If it’s a rag, that means its useful life is limited by its degree of degradation, and so I’m going to use it up if I can, instead of using another cloth in good condition for a task that is likely to ruin it (think cleaning up paint, motor oil, poisonous substances, etc…). Yes, I’m frugal, as I respect resources and prefer to not waste them. I trade speed for quality, and produce cloth items meant to last a long time without wearing out due to poor or mediocre construction methods. In many cases, though not all, the path of least resistance is indeed due to laziness and desire to reach completion more quickly, at the expense of quality and thorough forethought. I use shortcuts only when they are constructive, as they often backfire. My finishing is exceptional, and my payoff is the knowledge that I’ve produced a very fine, quality item that I’m proud of having created.

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