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PD: Path of Least Resistance versus Path of Greatest Efficiency

PD = Philosophical Discussion

I often visit the website Not often, in fact, but on a regular basis. To visit that site, I will use my existing browser window, or launch a new browser window by clicking on an icon on the task bar of my computer screen. Then, I click in the address bar of the browser, switch my hand from the mouse to the keyboard, and type in "sla". With auto-completion, the site's URL shows up and I press Enter, switch my hand back to the mouse, and begin reading.

It faintly occurs to me as I am opening this site, and others, that this is a very laborious and time-consuming procedure. I could actually create a shortcut on my desktop or start menu that launches with a single-click. I could even map a keystroke in Windows that performs the action. Despite these inklings, I do not change my behavior. Instead, I continue this almost daily routine of visiting the site by the time-consuming procedure I describe above. It seems easier to perform this mindless action every day, than to do the alternative. That alternative method is to think about how often I launch that website, and decide to spend a few minutes configuring and memorizing a shortcut.

This philosophical discussion concerns the observation that the path of least resistance is not always the path of greatest efficiency. In this case, suppose over the course of one year I visit slashdot two hundred times. Suppose also that the first method takes 10 units of energy, the second 1 unit, and the configuration 100 units. Therefore, using the first method, I would use 10 * 200 = 2,000 units of energy during the year. By contrast, using the second method, I would use 100 + 1 * 200 = 300 units of energy during the year.

Clearly, the most efficient method is to create a shortcut, taking 300 units versus 2,000 units for the laborious method. From a physics or all-knowing person's standpoint, this could also be called the path of least resistance. But from my limited perspective, the path of least resistance is to choose the brute-force method rather than to contemplate and configure a better methodology. Understanding this point of view will eliminate the apparent paradox in the original claim, that the path of least resistance is not always the path of greatest efficiency.

The point of this discussion to see if the principle applies more generally to other areas of life, rather than simply instructing us to configure shortcuts. I can think of another example with the way I maintain my car. I have been hearing creaks and groans from the rear tire wells and squealing brakes, but ignoring these sounds. From my limited standpoint, the path of least resistance is to ignore these sounds, because the brakes still work and I time spent on the car is less time for other things. From an all-knowing standpoint, this is not the path of least resistance. A friend of mine knowledgeable in auto mechanics advised me that the rear brakes probably need replacement. This illuminated the fact that the path of greatest efficiency is to take the car to a mechanic to fix the brakes, thereby avoiding catastrophic loss of braking power or damage to the brake hardware. Thus, we can see that the observation applies to other areas of life.

Beyond personal conditions, it seems that the observation can apply to societal conditions as well. Consider the issue of oil dependence. Michigan imports virtually all of its oil from other states or countries. Transportation in Michigan's cities, like metropolitan Detroit, Lansing, Battle Creek, etc., is wholly dependent upon the availability of the refined byproducts of this oil, namely gasoline and diesal fuel. Products like orange juice are also entirely imported, but Michigan's economy is not dependent upon those.

From the limited standpoint, the path of least resistance is to ignore this critical dependence until such time as there is a shortage. From the higher standpoint, this may not be the path of greatest efficiency. First, during an oil crisis, Michigan would be among the last in line to receive oil rations, due to its relative political weakness in the U.S. government. Second, eliminating the dependence on oil would make the Michigan economy stronger. Michigan could tax out-of-state transportation fuel sources to the point that in-state sources become commercially viable and the city's transportation infrastructure requires less fuel for operation. In this way, tax dollars could be reinvested into the state, and the state's economy could grow and prosper without the real and constant threat of oil shortages.

It is clear that in these cases, we should strive to find the path of greatest efficiency, and to shun the path of least resistance. What does it take then, to find that path of greatest efficiency? From the above examples, we can see that the first step is to acquire sufficient knowledge to convincingly argue that business as usual is not good. Once that has been established, then the second step becomes much easier, to grit one's teeth and take action in the correct direction.

In conclusion, I observed from my daily activities that the path of least resistance is not always the path of greatest efficiency. This apparently self-contradictory statement is comprehensible by understanding that the path of least resistance is observed through the eyes of one without all the facts, whereas the path of greatest efficiency is observed through the eyes of one who knows all the relevant facts. I was able to provide examples where this principle applied in both my personal life, and more generally in society. Finally, I came to the conclusion that resting, procrastinating, and ignoring are not satisfying ways to live. This is because the greater way to live involves becoming knowledgeable, and making determined moves to counter the tendency to live easily, which in fact is not the easy way at all.

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Created 2004-09-18, Last Modified 2011-07-24, © Shailesh N. Humbad
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