#3: 🛣 The Path of Least Resistance
The power of underlying structures and how to leverage them to create the future you want
Welcome to the third edition of the Samadhi City - a series of articles to help you cultivate a sense of inner stillness amidst the chaos of everyday life. Check out this post to learn more about its goals and what you can expect from the series.
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Out of the many mental models for life I have come across over the past few years, I find Robert Fritz’ idea of the path of resistance to be among the most powerful. This concept is applicable to many disciplines, from river engineering to evolutionary biology to UX design. In this article, I will explore it as a strategy we can adopt to actualize our potential and create the future we want for ourselves.
The Path of Least Resistance is based on 3 Core Principles:
Energy moves through the path of least resistance
The underlying structure determines the path of least resistance
The underlying structure - thereby the path of least resistance - can be changed.
On any given day, we make most decisions so rapidly that we’ve already made them before considering an alternative path. I’m not talking about the big decisions like career choices or where to live. I’m not even talking about the smaller, more conscious decisions like how to respond to an email or what to eat for dinner. I’m talking about the decision to open a new tab. The decision to “quickly” check our phones. The decision to watch one more episode. In the moment, we hardly stop to consider the impact these micro-decisions have on our lives.
While we’d probably go crazy if we had to evaluate every micro-decision we make, it’s worth zooming out to see how they reveal an underlying pattern, or structure in our lives. These underlying structures determine the behaviors that either propel us toward or detract us away from our goals.
The structures at play in our lives can include our work and home environments, our social circles, our schedules, habits, attitudes, and what information we’re regularly exposed to. They are bigger determinants of our behavior than the willpower we can muster at any given moment to do “the right thing”.
Therefore, it’s more effective to evaluate and make changes at the structure level such that the path of least resistance leads you to the future you want. In other words, we can modify the structures in your life such that your normal behavior is the desired behavior.
Let’s take a look at some examples of how powerful structures can be.
Your Social Circles
Who you are around makes a massive difference in the course of your life. They influence what you’re thinking, saying, and doing. If you’re surrounded by negative people, it will be hard to have a positive outlook on life. Intentionally or not, they’ll probably prevent you from believing that you can achieve your goals in the first place.
To echo motivational speaker Jim Rohn:
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
If your goal is to quit drinking, of course you’ll feel constant resistance if the people closest to you are always at the pub. If your goal is to save money, you’ll feel an internal conflict if your friends are frequently splashing out on the latest material goods. You may be able to stand your ground the first few times, but eventually you’ll revert back to going with the flow of what your closest social circle is doing.
Instead of having to repeatedly explain yourself, consider what social structures you can set up so that “going with the flow” actually takes you where you want to be. Join communities of people with shared interests and goals as you. Ones that can hold you accountable, support you in your struggles, and push you to be better.
Your Work Environment
If you are working and your phone is pinging every few minutes, you will be tempted to pick it up. Once you pick it up, you have to eventually wean yourself off it to get back to the task at hand. Push notifications have made us treat too many things in life as if they were an emergency. It exhausts our creative energy and ability to tackle the problems that really matter.
Take note of your surroundings and of the little things that can distract you. Little distractions are not so little when they compound over the course of your work life. Research has shown that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task after an interruption. Even the mere presence of a phone can eat away at your cognitive function.
I used to pride myself in responding to emails and messages immediately after I received them. It made me feel like I was always on top of things and “getting stuff done”. Now, I can’t think of what that achieved besides the reputation of being a quick responder. It was like being on-call, all the time. The possibility of a distraction was sometimes enough to deter me from starting a deeper work session. So much for getting stuff done.
This is an example of how our attitude towards work can be an underlying structure at play. I want to shape it such that the path of least resistance leads towards high-quality, consistent creative output. And I realized that this “immediate response” attitude was deterring me from this goal. The solution was to adjust the attitude - the underlying structure - accordingly. Timebox an hour or so each day specifically dedicated to responding to non-emergency messages. This way, I can ensure that everyone still gets a reasonably timely response, while saving my attention and creative energy for things that really move the needle.
Your Diet and Exercise
There’s a reason why dieting programs often suggest that you replace unhealthy foods in your house with healthier alternatives. It’s a structure-level solution that eliminates the need to “fight” the urge to go to the cookie jar. If you’re feeling hungry, and what’s immediately available to you are healthy snacks, you’ll take the path of least resistance and go for those instead of going out of your way to get the junk food you’re used to.
If you think of the gym, the pool, or any formal “sports facilities” for that matter, as the only place where you can get exercise, it will feel like an effort in itself to go to those places and get your one hour in. While many people do have a great gym routine or sporting hobbies that work for them, not all of us can dedicate the time or resources on a regular basis.
A question you can ask yourself is: how can I set up my life such that exercise is integrated in it? Do you live close enough to work that you can bike there instead of taking the train? Can you walk to do your various errands instead of driving? Can you make a one-time investment in some dumbbells so you can get some lifts in at home?
Again, social circles can be leveraged here. A group of pub-goers will influence you into drinking more. A group of crypto-traders will influence you into staring at price charts late into the night. A group of health enthusiasts will influence how mindful you are of your diet and the exercise you get. You still have to do the work of eating healthy and exercising, but the environmental and social structures in your life can make or break your momentum - thus increase or decrease the likelihood of success - towards your health goals.
Understanding the structures at play
Our circumstances may be worlds apart, but we are all bound by the structures in our lives and the paths of least resistance that arise from them. Think about your current situation. And then think about your ideal future. Does the path of least resistance in your life lead to where you want to go? In other words, are the structures in your life conducive of behaviors that bring you closer to what you want?
One way to understand the current structures in your life is through writing and reflecting on the day. What went well? What could have gone better? This gives a clearer picture of how you’re spending your days vs. how you should be spending your days if you want to reach your goals. It’s easy for your daily YouTube binge to blend into each other if you’re not keeping track of how you spend your time. But if you’re faced with a written record of yourself saying “I shouldn’t have spent 5 hours on YouTube today,” 7 days in a row, it’s hard to ignore the fact that something has to change.
Two years ago, I even went as far as writing about my entire life and ended up with a 100+ page autobiography and analysis. Self-Authoring turned out to be a great way for me to identify the underlying structures in my life at both a micro and macro level. Fair warning though, this quest is a beast to conquer in itself.
Your idea of an ideal future need only be clear enough that you would recognize it if you found yourself living in it. But the more descriptive you can be, the easier it will be to recognize the discrepancy between your current reality and your ideal future. This discrepancy is important, because it should get smaller as you move towards the ideal future. It’s a good indicator of the progress you make along the way.
Finding the path of least resistance towards your goals does not eliminate hard work from the equation. You have to make appropriate changes to the structures in your life to create this path in the first place, which can involve anything from leaving your phone outside the room to breaking up with your significant other and moving to a new city. After that, you’ll still have to fine-tune the structures in response to feedback about how you’re doing towards your goals.
Towards inner stillness…
The path of least resistance towards our desired results does not give us an excuse to be lazy. We still have to do the work to create the careers, networks, businesses, works of art, and families that we envision. We are still bound to the surprises that life may throw at us, but we have a say in whether or not the structures in our lives puts momentum on our side. Being grounded in this knowledge brings a sense of stillness in our journeys toward the future we are creating.
In realigning our lives’ underlying structures to point towards our goals, we acknowledge the tendencies of human nature and plan accordingly. The path of least resistance eliminates unnecessary hard work of having to will our way towards desired behaviors. It makes the easy decision the right decision, saving our mental energy and willpower for the things that truly matter.
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You can also find me at nichanank.com and on Twitter 👋🏼
Until next time,
Big thanks to Anand Mariappan, Bea Trinidad, Kushaan Shah, Jamie Finney, Natalie Toren, Nivi Jayasekar, Varun Kumar for reading drafts of this and giving invaluable feedback.