Does trying to make life "easy", actually make it more difficult?
When coaching, one of the places I’ll often start is identifying ‘pinch points’ – circumstances or conditions that are making things harder for someone to reach their goals. For example, if you want to go to the gym 4 days a week but your gym is a 30 minute commute, that’s a physical pinch point. If you want to minimise stress but are constantly complaining to everyone about how stressed you are, that’s a mental pinch point. In both instances, you’re making things harder for yourself. You’re creating friction.
So of course, we’d work to minimise that friction. Find a closer gym, create more helpful thought patterns. In essence, make things easier.
But while there are some areas of our life which benefit from being streamlined, I feel like our modern obsession with reducing friction and difficulty everywhere is changing how we live. It’s shifting how we relate to others and the world, and it’s damaging our capacity to deal with friction when it does appear.
Friction is necessary to do or accomplish anything. Without physical friction, we wouldn’t be able to walk, or even stand up. Everything would slide to its lowest point, and just stay there.
And mental and social friction are vital too. Our brains don’t like things to be too easy – we grow and develop through frustration and challenges. Life is supposed to be stimulating, and when something is “too easy” it actually unnerves us. By always being met at the lowest point, we just stay there.
So why is our society fanatical about reducing friction? With making our experiences as seamless as possible?
Our lives are objectively more complicated than ever – on a daily basis we face a range of demands, stresses, choices and stimuli that would be incomprehensible to our ancestors. One way to deal with this, is by attempting to exert more control. We make lists, create categories and constantly look for new ways to better deal – or perhaps even thrive! – with everything that’s being thrown at us. We streamline.
And the idea behind many streamlining advancements is of course to make our lives better! The argument goes that by reducing friction in some areas, we will have more time for the things that really matter to us.
But does that actually happen? When machinery such as washing machines and hoovers completely revolutionised housework for (mostly) women, they unexpectedly also created a higher demand on their lives – with all these appliances to hand they were then expected to be perfect housewives! (This study argues that women from this time actually spent more time on housework.)
Does having Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon, Ocado or any of the other friction-reducing apps on your phone actually mean you use that extra time to prioritise creative pursuits or family? Or, because nature abhors a vacuum, do we just fill it up with meaningless tasks and demands instead?
And, even if these apps do make our lives easier and allow us to better prioritise, are there other hidden costs?
Look, I’m clearly not anti-modern living – I’m not about to return to washing all my bedding by hand and I’m as reliant on these apps as the next person. However, I do sometimes feel that in our constant attempts to minimise (or remove entirely) the friction in our lives, we’re doing ourselves a disservice along the way.
Firstly, sometimes the pinch points are what help us make good choices. The advent of frictionless shopping (something Jordan Mitchell talked about in relation to Pinterest in last week’s episode of Priorities) is dangerous for our bank balances, as well as our relationship to consumerism. The easier something is to buy, the more likely we are to buy it without considering whether we even really want, let alone need, that thing.
Pinch points are also crucial to social development – by actually picking up a take-away from the local Indian or ordering books from the local bookshop, we speak to our neighbours, support a small business and ultimately help knit together a community. (We also probably use our legs to walk there, which improves our health!)
Pinch points even increase the enjoyment of an experience – I remember waiting excitedly as a child for when our family in Israel would send a crate of Jaffa oranges that in the 1980s, weren’t easily available in the UK. Part of the joy was the waiting, definitely not something I experience when my shopping arrives now! There’s little satisfaction in getting everything we want, all the time.
But also, and perhaps more significantly, are our seamless experiences collectively lowering our capacity to tolerate friction when it inevitably does arrive? Remember waiting patiently for dial up? Now we absolutely lose our shit if the internet takes more than a few seconds to connect. Or if our train is late. Or if things don’t go our way.
I’m wondering whether, if the neuroplasticity of our brain – its ability to change and adapt – is dependent on experience, then are we limiting the brain’s development by constantly trying to make things easy? Are we lessening our ability to cope with the more difficult, friction-full times in our lives? (Big questions here! Please do chime in with qualified answers if you work in neuroscience?!)
It seems to me that friction is a boundary that we need. Part of what makes life meaningful, enjoyable and interesting are the boundaries and bumps in the road that we come up against, and how we use our minds to overcome them. Sometimes – but certainly not always! – it’s helpful for us to be punching slightly above what we think we can handle, as this is how we build strength, resilience and spirit. It all brings to mind the maxim generally attributed to author Glennon Doyle but which has really been around forever: We can do hard things. I’ll add to this: but we also need to practice! If you’re always used to things being easy and going your way, how do you respond when they don’t? Difficulty is part of life, and the more we can accept that, perhaps the better – and easier – our lives will actually be.
Now clearly, there are some areas of life where we can truly increase our happiness, and effectiveness, by reducing friction - particularly where it’s adding an unhelpful cognitive load. I’m thinking…
· A home that needs better organisation?
· A job that makes you unhappy?
· A relationship that needs healing?
· Mental blocks that are stopping you from doing something you feel passionate about?
But I’m also sure that there are areas in life that could do with a bit more friction, with a bit of stickiness to them. In one behavioural science study, slowing down lift doors by 26 seconds prompted more people to take the stairs, and in another, removing vending machines from schools made it less likely that teenagers would drink sugar-laden soda during the school day. Making things harder can also make them better.
How could you add meaningful friction today to make your own experience of life a little better?