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Why Humans Like Taking the Easy Way Out

We fetishize hard work a bit, don’t we?

Toil, endless toil; gritty determination in the face of adversity; and ceaseless, relationship-rending labor are virtues to be praised. We applaud each other for working late, snicker at those who don’t, and measure our self-worth in timestamps. Meanwhile, those who “take the easy way out” are ridiculed and lambasted and passed over for promotions. Googling the term returns pages and pages of blogs explaining how to kick the habit of taking it easy. By all accounts, taking the easy way out seems harmful and counterproductive to our survival in this world. Why, then, do so many of us seem drawn to the path of least resistance? If “the hard route” leads to riches, why isn’t seeking it hard-wired in us all? Why do we tend to look for the easy way out of a situation?

Well, it’s just easier that way, for one. Physics says that the path of least resistance is generally the one taken.

Think about the evolutionary context, too – the context(s) under which we lived, evolved, adapted, and figured out how to survive. Like any other animal living in nature, we had to conserve energy when we could, because a grocery store wasn’t always right around the corner. We liked shortcuts, because those were more efficient and they used less energy and fewer resources. Toolmaking? Tools make tasks easier. An average 4-hour workday [7] with plenty of downtime for leisure activities? That’s the easy way out. Persistence hunting [8]? Easy way out. It just so happens that in the ancestral context, the “easy way” worked. Using persistence hunting [9] as an example, this allowed hunters to bag an animal without burning through all their glycogen and electrolyte stores. Whereas attempting to run the animal down at a blistering-5 minute mile marathon [10] pace would lead to pulled muscles, strained ligaments, exhausted glycogen stores, dehydration, and near-certain failure, the “easy way out” was also the most effective way forward.

Today, the situation is different. You’re not going to die (today) because you overextended yourself at work. You might be stressed out and sleep-deprived, but you’ll still have that car waiting in the garage to take you home to your refrigerator full of food and warm bed. You can overextend yourself and reap great financial rewards with minimal immediate risk to your personal safety. Survival is no longer about digging up some tubers [11], killing game [12], finding water [13], and avoiding the elements. Most of us have to figure out ways to obtain the slips of paper that are redeemable for goods and services, and that can take some hard, weird work. We’re paying for college tuitions, housing, transportation, smartphone data plans, vacations.

Population dynamics have changed, too. No longer are we drawing upon fertile, untouched grounds teeming with edible life and resources without much competition from others. Now we’re applying for jobs with hundreds of other applicants, or trying to make our products/businesses stand out amidst the burgeoning crowd. We stand alone as individuals against everyone else (or at least it can feel like that). The easy way out doesn’t work quite as well as it once did.

Yet the urge remains in many of us. I can relate. I grew up taking the easy way out as often as I could. Instead of walking to school, I ran. It was faster, it was more enjoyable, and it was just easier than trudging along. I’d take short cuts through wooded areas, again because it was faster, more enjoyable, and easier. When figuring out what sport to take up, I chose the easier route. Instead of working on my handle, lateral quickness, outside shot, and passing ability to overcome my size and excel at basketball, I went with cross country because it was something I was already good at. This continued in college and, really, throughout my life. I’d often choose to run fifteen miles to prep for a race instead of study extra hard for the exam because, well, running was “easier.” I coasted through with solid B’s because, well, it was good enough for what I wanted to do and because I had decided to postpone med school. All these shortcuts made sense to me, and they worked for me.

Later, when I realized that my training schedule was impeding my health [14] and that I could improve my physique [15] and overall fitness with less training and less endurance work, I jumped on it. I made my short, hard workouts shorter and more intense and my long, easy workouts longer and easier. Lifting weights [16] was hard work, but packing it in to a smaller time frame somehow felt easier. Going for runs [17] or cycling at a moderately high intensity for upwards of an hour was hard and fairly unpleasant, while extending the time and reducing the intensity was more enjoyable. It became a hike [18], a leisure activity. I was taking the easy way out with my workouts and getting better results.

I even designed my entire eating philosophy around taking the path of least resistancespontaneous reduction in hunger [19] instead of calorie counting, food quality instead of quantity, avoiding the problematic foods [20] instead of soaking/sprouting/fermenting [21] to make them less problematic – to get the best results. So there’s definitely still a place for taking the easy way out.

It’s really only in the business world that I’ve opted not to take the easy way out. I’ve had to put in the time, the hours, the grunt work to really excel and help build the Primal [22] community from the ground up. Even though this venture has been a huge success, there are also drawbacks. I don’t have as much free time as I might prefer. I have to deal with ample amounts of stress [23]. Even then, my decision to take the hard route and build this business was ultimately about improving my quality of life (and that of others, I hope!) and making it easier to do what I wanted to do.

And that’s the thing: sometimes shortcuts work, sometimes they fall short. Sometimes it makes sense to take the easy way, sometimes it doesn’t. Being drawn to the easy route isn’t a fault, it’s a built-in feature from long ago that doesn’t always work so well today. It doesn’t make us weak, though, and it’s not always a mistake to listen to that urge. You just have to be selective in choosing when and where to listen depending on the situation.

Overall, I think our preference for the easy route is a good thing, because it leads to shortcuts and improved efficiency – even if we have to work really hard for awhile to get there. So while the guys at the startup putting in 20 hour days are absolutely not taking the easy way out, their ultimate goal is to streamline the business so that things are easier and more efficient later. The woman who walks an hour every day instead of driving everywhere isn’t taking the easy route, but in forty years she’ll be the one playing with her grandkids, walking up stairs without an issue, and having an overall easier life than the person who opted to drive everywhere and never exercise. In the grand scheme of things, all these people who worked hard did so to relax and enjoy things later on.

We all want to take the easy route, even if we have to take a more difficult, roundabout way to get there.

As long as you’re aware of the evolutionary underpinnings of our urge to take the easy way out and selective in your response to that urge, you should be okay. Work hard and take risks where appropriate, take shortcuts when they work without shortchanging the final result. At any rate, blanket statements like “avoid the easy way out” aren’t very helpful, and they can even get you into trouble.

What about you? How have you taken the easy way out in life? When has it ruined you? When has it paid off?