Overcoming the Principle of Least Effort


A student confidently speaks to her class as her teacher smiles in the background.

Challenging students to dig in and achieve their potential during instructional hours confronts a mighty obstacle: the principle of least effort, the idea that people apply nominal effort to achieve a basically acceptable result instead of pushing themselves in pursuit of greatness.

We might be tempted to conflate low effort with laziness, but that misses an important physiological point: To conserve finite attention funds, our brains are designed to avoid tasks that are cognitively demanding. Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes two modes of thinking. The efficient and fairly unconscious mode is System 1. Involuntarily reading a Wheaties box, scorning new “athleisure” clothes, and opening a combination lock are all System 1 mental events.

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