Why Trying To Make Something Happen May Not Be The Best Idea


Saturday, 7.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The law that entropy always increases – the second law of thermodynamics – holds I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much worse for Maxwell equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation. – Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, in The Nature of the Physical World.

I am, it has to be said, quite lazy.

I dislike effort – if something takes effort then it seems like something that should be looked at quite closely – well before you start to think about considering doing it.

This is not the standard advice from most people.

Most people are can-do optimists who believe that they can overcome any obstacles as long as they persevere, apply themselves and never ever give up.

And there is a problem with this kind of thinking and to see why let’s look at diets.

I was listening to a talk by Dr Michael Greger introducing his new book How not to diet where he discusses the evidence around healthy eating.

Somewhere in there he talks about diets – which we’ve all been on.

And he says something like you can make anything happen when you apply enough of a forcing effect.

That made my ears prick up.

It’s probably not an actual term but that idea of applying a forcing effect to make something go your way probably resonates with you as well.

If you go on a low sugar, low carb, high carb, low fat – whatever diet – what you’re doing is forcing yourself to stick with a particular programme.

And when you do this two things happen – depending on how long you carry on.

In the first instance you start to see weight loss as the changes you make start to have an effect – one that shows up in the scales.

Let’s leave the debate around whether it’s fat, water or protein being lost to others – the point is that you see a result.

But then, when you come off the diet, the weight quite often comes back on.

That’s one effect.

The other is that if you stay on the diet it starts working less well – you eventually plateau and further improvement stops.

So what’s going on here?

In the first instance when you remove the forcing effect the system returns to normal.

In the second instance when you maintain the forcing effect the system adapts to the new reality and stabilises at a new normal.

Now imagine that a new CEO comes in and shakes everything up in your business.

For a while, things change – but if that CEO moves on and the people still stay – then eventually the old (bad?) habits creep back in.

If the CEO stays then the people start to change – some old, good people leave because they can’t work with the new person.

New people come in and a new stable configuration results – usually bringing with it interesting new organisational conflicts, issues and problems.

The system will always have its revenge in the end.

The quote that starts this post is about entropy – about how everything tends to disorder – and that is the natural state of things.

Which is why it’s strange that we spend so much time fighting entropy.

For example, if you do any kind of work it’s almost certain that you will be reporting on some kind of metric.

For example, if you send out proposals you probably have a spreadsheet where you list all the proposals you’ve sent and their value.

This takes effort – going through your documents and collecting the information – and it’s more than likely that the spreadsheet lags behind the actual number and value of proposals.

But this is normal – every month people ask for this and people do the work.

If your sales team don’t send in the numbers you crack the whip, change things around.

An alternative – in my perfect text based, Unix driven universe, would be to have all proposals simply processed by a script that pulled out the relevant numbers and sends an email.

Or even better – focus on the clients and let the proposals simply emerge from the conversations you have.


The point is that you don’t have to create an effort based system – you can create an effortless one.

But that also takes effort.

Some people live their lives and work like they’re always at the gym, on a treadmill, or pumping weights.

And if you’re always stood there holding up those weights, when do you get the time to relax, look around, and appreciate what’s around you?

Maybe, when you really think about it, forcing something to happen doesn’t work for diets in particular and life in general.


Karthik Suresh

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