Hacking Friction To Boost Your Productivity

TL;DR: Where possible, turn the friction in your life into a willpower booster rather than a willpower drain.

Friction. It’s not just two physical objects resisting each other as they interact. It’s also a psychological phenomenon that feels a lot like this:

Newton’s Frst Law of Motion – aka. the Law of Inertia – (essentially) states that objects want to continue doing whatever they’re doing. (The same pretty much applies to us humans, doesn’t it?) When objects (or people!) try to overcome inertia, it involves friction, i.e., resistance to the change in inertia.

Interestingly, friction is a two-sided coin. To better understand this, let’s look at an example.

A Friction Case Study

Part #1: Too Much

Let’s take doing a work project as an example of how inertia and friction interact. Starting out, you have inertia – you’re not working on the project. When you try to go from this state of non-work to the state of work, you have to overcome the inertia of continuing not to work, which requires energy and willpower and causes you to encounter a lot of friction as you seek to get moving.

For most of us most of the time, starting on a project, task, etc. is hard and often feels a lot like this:

We just sit there and can’t quite get off the ground. There is a lot of friction that’s arrayed against us and it either slows us down or makes it so that we never even start in the first place.

Part #2: Too Little

Now, let’s switch gears and think of what often happens when we encounter friction – procrastination. We don’t start the work project and instead we do browse social media, play games, check email, etc. Why? Often, it’s because these things either completely lack or involve very little friction.

It’s hard to get into the right frame of mind, collect everything we need, and start on a work project – for most of us, this is a high-friction affair. However, it’s really easy to pull up social media and browse an afternoon away – for most of us, this is a low-friction affair.

But…

All that being said, I would actually argue that:

Friction itself isn’t bad!

What is bad is what we might call “misapplied friction“: There’s too much friction when it comes to the things we want to do (like starting the work project) and too little friction when it comes to behaviors we don’t want to engage in (like procrastination). If the friction situation were flipped, it would actually be a good thing!

Identifying Misapplied Friction

We know we have misapplied friction when on the one hand we say we don’t want to engage in a certain activity or behavior while on the other hand we make it so that engaging in that behavior is a very easy (low-friction) experience. Imagine if we could flip the script. Imagine if we:

  1. Reduced or removed the friction involved in starting desirable behaviors and actions while also
  2. Increasing the friction required to engage in undesirable behaviors and actions

So you want to:

  • Start exercising more? Awesome! Where are the points of friction? Are your workouts long, complicated, and require special equipment? Could you simplify? What’s your mentality: working out as an event (high-friction) or a living an active lifestyle (low-friction – move whenever you can)? Are you giving yourself huge goals that create a lot of anxiety? How about doing one of those 7-minute workouts every day instead of worrying about dedicating huge chunks of time multiple times a week to be at the gym?
  • Stop using social media so much (or at all)? Cool! Start by deleting any apps from your phone, logging out of any browser sessions, and confining social media to certain high-friction devices (i.e., laptop instead of phone). Increase the amount of friction that’s required to engage with these apps. Still using them too much? Increase the friction even more. Heck, change your passwords to random 60-character strings you have to type in by hand each time you want to use a social media website – now that’s friction!

For most of us, the problem is we make activities that don’t really reflect our values way too easy while doing little, if anything, to reduce the friction required to engage in the activities we actually care about. But turn this behavior on its head and you’re hacking friction so that it works for you instead of against you.

For most of us, the problem is we make activities that don’t really reflect our values way too easy while doing little, if anything, to reduce the friction required to engage in the activities we actually care about.

Special Cases

If that’s all there really was to it, hacking friction to work for us instead of against us would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, there are some special cases when it comes to friction we need to address. The kicker for all of these is they often drain our willpower before we can even start to overcome the friction opposing us. Thus, in order for us to move forward, they need to be identified and dealt with before we can really start hacking friction to work for us.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_(psychology)

Often, perfectionism starts out as a form of coping. At one point in life, it served us by allowing us to focus on and improve the small areas in our life that we could control even if the larger context of our existence was uncontrollable and/or traumatic.

However, as one moves into adulthood and independence, perfectionism ceases to be an effective means of coping and instead becomes a liability. It’s often a symptom of some level of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). One of the hallmarks of OCD is that it causes the sufferer anxiety, which often goes hand-in-hand with procrastination and all its associated misapplied friction. Additionally, perfectionism often adds an extra layer of misapplied friction to even the smallest tasks and can thus be very paralyzing.

All that to say, recognize the difference between misapplied friction and paralysis when it comes to starting or doing things. If what you’re experiencing feels more like paralysis, seek out professional help with a focus on OCD. In such cases, there’s often a lot more going on than a simple need to “get down to work,” and long-term solutions that get at the core underlying issues will provide a lot more freedom than short-term band-aids or the next productivity fad.

Worry, Fear, and Self-Doubt

Worry is simply misapplied friction borrowed from a future that may or may not happen. Like perfectionism, it adds a layer of misapplied friction, borrowed from tomorrow, to everything we’re trying to do today. Fear is worry for one’s safety. Since the known feels so much safer than the unknown, a very primal part of our brain adds friction (via fear) to any choices that feel unsafe.

Additionally, we all have an ongoing internal dialogue with ourselves. Often, this dialogue is a never-ending source of misapplied friction. Self-doubt feels a lot like trying to pedal a bike while simultaneously clamping down on the brakes.

The antidote to all of the above is focused action on what is controllable, the things that will affect where we find ourselves tomorrow, and faith that leaves the rest in hands bigger than our own. In the timeless words of the rabbi Jesus:

Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

The Gospel of Matthew Chapter 6 Verse 34

That last bit is key: You already have enough on your plate today, and that’s where your time and energy should be focused. This isn’t simplistic advice to “just stop worrying.” Instead, it’s a call to focus where it counts despite the countless voices trying to pull us in a hundred different directions.

Actionable vs. Inactionable Friction

When friction is actionable, you are able to exert influence to control it, whether that be increasing or decreasing it. However, not all friction falls into this category. You can’t exert enough friction to stop a runaway train, and neither can you apply enough force to overcome the friction required to get a train moving. In such cases, the discussion needs to move from control to management.

For example, many health complications create inactionable friction. They may make even the simplest tasks difficult, high-friction experiences. In such cases, the unwanted and inactionable friction needs to be acknowledged and a coping strategy enacted. While it may be painful and slow, the only way forward is the belief that progress is possible. One helpful focus in such situations is to double down on removing friction where possible. Simplify. Outsource. Shrink the scope down to the most important thing and stay at it until it’s done.

Getting Things Done

We can’t rely on willpower alone to carry us through all our daily decisions. It’s precious, and every day we really only have so much of the stuff available before we run dry. Thus, over time, we would be wise to invest in creating a lifestyle where the friction we experience on a daily basis is, as much as possible, a willpower booster rather than a willpower drain.

It’s such a buzzword, but living intentionally is something we can all take to heart. Put simply, it means orchestrating the things in our lives instead of letting them just carry us along.

Try orchestrating the friction in your life and see what it does for you!

1 thought on “Hacking Friction To Boost Your Productivity”

  1. I like it. I never used the term ‘friction’ before in this context. But it’s perfect. And yes, friction is all around use. We just never quantify it as well as you just did.

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