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How Incredibly Lazy People Can Form Productive Habits

If you want to change your behavior but not try that hard, then pay attention to the friction involved.

Like many of us desk-bound keyboard-toilers, marketing strategist Gregory Ciotti is trying to get to the gym more. But Ciotti is also a productivity blogger, so he has a keen understanding of how to hack his morning routine . The solution: designing for laziness.

"I pack my gym clothes in a bag the night before and place them right next to my door," he says. "On cold days, I even place my jacket on the counter-top by the door. By again designing for laziness, I eliminate all possible excuses by getting things ready when my willpower is high (aka: the night before, when I don’t have to go to the gym)."

By packing his bag the night before and placing it right by the door, Ciotti has reduced the friction associated with doing something healthy for himself. If you get prepared the night before, you don't spend 15 of your precious morning minutes rifling through your drawers in search of lost socks; instead, you're on the treadmill. Conversely, you can increase the friction if you want to drop an unhealthy behavior.

How else can you apply the more-or-less friction method and thus better leverage your laziness? It might help to have an understanding of why we don't like friction.

Psychology gives us two points to think from: first, your brain isn't going to spend energy that it doesn't need to spend in order to complete a task. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, has posited that this is an evolutionary adaptation—if you're trying to survive the Stone Age by using the fewest calories possible, it makes sense that we're disinclined to effort.

Decision fatigue presents another angle: our brains are organs, not computers. They get tired. With that tiredness, the quality of our cognition goes down—one of the reasons your reasoning when you're tired is so much worse than when you're alert, as Deepak Chopra would assert.

Reducing or increasing friction, then, is a way of preventing ourselves from squandering our mental energy on less meaningful decisions. If the socks are in your gym bag, you don't need to find them in the morning; if the candy bar is on a far away shelf, you'll be less tempted to touch them.

That focus on friction is something that leaders understand. President Obama, for instance, keeps a deliberately minimalist wardrobe, as he unpacked to Vanity Fair:

"You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits," [Obama] said. "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make." He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. "You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can't be going through the day distracted by trivia."

The takeaway, then: rather than spending your energy on trivia, invest it in deep work or other productive habits—which reducing friction helps us do.

Hat tip: Sparring Mind

[Image: Flickr user JD Hancock]

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  • Don Falconer

    I've always wanted someone to design an alarm clock app that makes you play some sort of game or solve a puzzle before it will let you turn it off - get your brain active before you have a chance to hit that "snooze" button.

  • vanessa

    pretty sure that already exists. I know there are ones that force you to do a math problem to turn it off. Check the app store.

  • Steve Levinson, Ph.D.

    Doing whatever you can to reduce friction is smart. But you should never overlook an opportunity to also increase "thrust." My favorite example of this is the fellow who finally got himself to exercise regularly by making a deal with himself that from now on he'd keep his one and only stick of underarm deodorant in his gym locker. This left him with a choice every morning between going to the gym (which he didn't want to do) vs. stinking all day (which he REALLY didn't want to do). So he went to the gym every day, and once he got there and was greeted by friends, he stayed and exercised.

  • Zen Shoemaker

    I liked the reframing and I LOVED the idea of reducing/increasing the friction around the task or item. Makes perfect sense to me. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Alex

    Obama and Steve Jobs did the same thing. It's why Steve always wore Levi's 501 jeans, a black shirt or turtle neck, and New Balance sneakers everyday.

    In Walter Isaacson’s new authorized biography of Steve Jobs, Jobs revealed to Issacson in an interview before his death how the late Apple CEO developed his trademark look:

    "On a trip to Japan in the early 1980s, Jobs asked Sony’s chairman Akio Morita why everyone in the company’s factories wore uniforms. He told Jobs that after the war, no one had any clothes, and companies like Sony had to give their workers something to wear each day...In the process, however, he became friends with Miyake and would visit him regularly. He also came to like the idea of having a uniform for himself, both because of its daily convenience (the rationale he claimed) and its ability to convey a signature style. “So I asked Issey to make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them.” Jobs noticed my surprise when he told this story, so he showed them stacked up in the closet. “That’s what I wear,” he said. “I have enough to last for the rest of my life.”

  • MarketingMichele

    Drake! That was excellent, and it's info we all can take advantage of now and then.

  • Michael Blaustein

    What if I'm too lazy to pack my bag the night before? How do I reduce that friction?

  • Gregory Ciotti

    Research on implementation intentions show that annoying tasks are often to easier to do when they follow a regularly recurring event.

    In other words, find something you do every day (like come home from work), and then add another small link to the chain by following it with 'Activity X'.

    If packing your gym bag is the task in question, do it as soon as you put your foot in the door, before you even take you shoes off.

  • Jayna Fey

    My mom used to tell me to pack my bag the day before school so we could leave more readily in the morning. who knew she was so ahead of the game and just "reducing friction" for her elementary school child? I should give her a call, let her know she is a genius at "designing for laziness", set her up with a blog.

    Not to be a total downer but as a "productivity blogger" I think we can get a little more productive than "pack your bag before school kids!"

  • Gregory Ciotti

    Jayna, that's just a single minuscule recommendation that Drake pulled from my article.

    I discuss a bunch of research and cover more than just 'packing your bag the night before', maybe read it before saying something like that?

    I've covered dozens of studies on productivity: ... so pay my site a visit sometime. :)

  • Jayna Fey

    Hi gregory, thanks for responding. I'm newly self-employed and obviously self-management is a huge part of my day. I checked out your site and am now a subscriber.

    My sarcasm was not so much directed at your work but what I've found to be the falling standard of FastCo's online content - wishy washy concepts lightly touched upon in a few paragraphs and in some cases with kind of BS sources - there was an article from not too long ago posted about the health concerns of food dyes that was so vague and listed as a source.

    This is not to say that your work is wishy washy or BS, but sometimes FastCo seems to default into the "reblog" mode and posts content with little impact and little added value. Your work shines much more brightly on your site than it does here.

  • Bárbara

    I totally agree. I'm one of those persons that arenges everything the night before, just cause i'm zero productive in the morning, but for me it was just common sense. I was expecting something mire insightfull :)