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How to Use Other People's Laziness to Your Advantage

Get their help, and avoid what you don't want to take on.

Key points

  • Humans everywhere behave as if our brains run a subconscious program designed to conserve effort.
  • As a result, laziness is not only normal; it is predictable.
  • This predictable pattern allows you to quietly influence many situations at work and avoid a request without saying "no."

Our capacity for exerting effort is limited. It makes sense that we reserve energy for the times we want or need to achieve something. However, you might be surprised by the vast extent to which a drive to reduce effort governs human behavior.

As a general rule, most people most of the time exert the least amount of energy possible, which leads to a minimally acceptable outcome. This does not mean that the people around you deserve to be called "lazy." A more fitting label is simply "normal."

The Principle of Least Effort

The linguist George Zipf created the term "the principle of least effort." He observed that people tend to gravitate towards the course of action requiring the least amount of work [1].

Since Zipf's early observations, researchers from diverse disciplines have verified that whatever pathway represents the minimum expenditure of calories (or seconds spent thinking) to get to a given end is usually a pretty good prediction of what people do [2, 3, 4, 5]. If you have found yourself jaywalking, using an acronym, reading the summary instead of the article, ending your search once you have a halfway decent answer, or even continuing to buy bad coffee from a convenient vendor, the good news is that your behavior is perfectly ordinary.

Least Possible Effort in the Workplace

Given that the path of least effort is such a common pattern, steps to avoid effort will undoubtedly be happening in your workplace. Thus, we can make some fairly reliable predictions.

Statistically, people at work are most likely to do whatever is the easiest approach to meeting their needs. They will be far more inclined to exert effort for things they want rather than things you want. Further, the more time or effort involved in a given task, the less likely that people will complete it.

Influence Effort to Quietly Influence Behavior

One of my postgraduate students coined the phrase "make it easy; make it hard" to describe how to influence what people do (or don't do) based on the amount of effort involved. Need people to complete a process? Make it as easy as possible, and you increase the chances they will do so. Don't want people to do something? Increase the effort required, and you decrease the chances they will.

This simple rule gives you the opportunity to increase your influence over people and outcomes in a quiet and mostly invisible manner. Although no single principle of psychology governs all behavior in all cases, the principle of least effort is sufficiently strong and common that you will almost certainly be able to use it to influence what people do at work.

When You Wish You Could Say No

Helping your co-workers can be fun as well as a great way to build social capital—but chances are, you also get requests that are not fun nor beneficial to your own goals and career. After all, the principle of least effort predicts that some people will be asking for help simply because it takes much less effort to make the request than it does to do the work themselves.

Further, it can be hard to say no when people ask us for help. In fact, Cornell professor Vanessa Bohns and her team identified that one of the primary reasons people agree to help their colleagues is the significant discomfort and guilt it would cause them to say no [6]. The pressure to help a colleague is even greater when the request is made in person than when it is made over email [7].

If you don't want to help but feel pressure to say yes, your best approach is to reverse the effort dynamics. Instead of doing a lot of work to answer a request that took no effort to make, reply in a manner that takes little effort from you but requires significant steps from the requester. In response, some requests will simply disappear without you ever having to say "no."

When You're the One Asking for Help

Instead of thinking about what you want someone to do and then trying to figure out how to cleverly talk them into it, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the most essential step that I need from the influence target?
  2. How can I make it as easy as possible for the influence target to take that most essential step?

For example, if you replace a request such as "How can I solve this problem?" (requiring the receiver to solve your problem) with the easier question "If you were in my situation, what would be the next step?" (requiring the receiver to name one step only), you have made it easier for the other person to give you advice.

When Someone Does Not Respond

Now that you know it is normal behavior to avoid effort, you should be less emotionally affected by someone's failure to respond to you. Instead of asking, "Why didn't they respond?" you might ask, "How much effort did I ask for?"

To illustrate, if you are asking someone to decide between options, list those options, so it takes minimal time to read them. In contrast, if your request requires the receiver to open attachments or process complex information, you increase the likelihood that he or she puts it aside—and then never gets back to it.

If someone has not responded, then simplify your request—both in terms of words that must be read and thinking that must be done. Now try again. Better still, take your low-effort request and talk to them!

In summary, when we attempt to influence people at work, our default approach focuses on what we want from them instead of what they are most likely to do. The inbuilt human desire to avoid effort can be used to your advantage.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock


[1] Zipf, G. K. (1972). Human behavior and the principle of least effort an introduction to human ecology. Hafner.

[2] Guy, S. J., Curtis, S., Lin, M. C., & Manocha, D. (2012). Least-effort trajectories lead to emergent crowd behaviors. Physical Review E, 85(1).

[3] Zhu, Y., Zhang, B., Wang, Q. A., Li, W., & Cai, X. (2018). The principle of least effort and Zipf Distribution. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 1113, 012007.

[4] Bates M. (2005). An introduction to metatheories, theories and models. In K. E. Fisher, S. Erdelez, & L. McKechnie (Eds.), Theories of information behavior (pp. 1-24). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

[5] Schwartz, B., Ben-Haim, Y., & Dacso, C. (2010). What makes a good decision? Robust satisficing as a normative standard of rational decision making. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 41(2), 209–227.

[6] Newark, D. A., Bohns, V. K., & Flynn, F. J. (2017). A helping hand is hard at work: Help-seekers’ underestimation of helpers’ effort. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 139, 18–29.

[7] Roghanizad, M. M., & Bohns, V. K. (2017). Ask in person: You're less persuasive than you think over email. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69, 223-226.

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