The Law of Least Effort

Though we often aren't aware of its influence, the instinct to minimize Effort is perhaps the most powerful psychological force operating on our decisions. Think about your daily commute to work and all the decisions that go into it. The gas station you use, the route you take, even the mode of transport you select (car vs. public transportation), all of these decisions obey the law of least effort. Your first concern is convenience and efficiency. You likely choose the gas station closest to your home, take the fastest route, and drive your own car because these are the easy and efficient options. They are the choices that minimize personal cost.

The law of least effort states that people over time will follow the path that provides the greatest rewards for the least possible Effort. This principle was first proposed in 1949 by Harvard linguist George Zipf (also known as Zipf's law). As we all know, language changes over time. Zipf's insight was that the evolution of language isn't random. Just as water flows downhill, words and phrases simplify over time. Take the word “goodbye.” In England in the 1500s, it was customary to wish someone farewell with the four‐syllable phrase, “God be with ye.” By the 1600s, the written form of the phrase had been abbreviated to “God b'wi ye.” By the 1700s, the phrase was shortened to three syllables and became “God b'ye.” A hundred years later, it took on the two‐syllable “good‐bye.” And by the 1900s the hyphen was dropped to form “goodbye.” Today, “bye” has now become the standard.

Over the course of history, words and phrases shorten because we naturally find the easier path. “Math” is easier to say than “mathematics” and therefore “math” has largely rendered “mathematics” obsolete. The tendency toward ease and efficiency occurs even at the expense of the original meaning. You've likely heard the expression, Jack of all trades. But that expression began as, jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one. The original expression praises the generalist. The expression was later condensed to jack of all trades, master of none, which implies that a generalist doesn't know very much at all. And finally, the phrase was condensed further to its current version jack of all trades, which again praises the qualities of a generalist.

Simplification isn't the only way language evolves, but it is one of the principle ways words and phrases mutate over time. It is revealing that language doesn't flow in the opposite direction. There are very few examples of words or phrase getting longer with time. Because that runs against our nature.

The evolution of language looks quite similar to the shifts in the American retail landscape over the last 150 years. As towns and cities first developed, Americans bought goods in small stores. Most Americans lived on rural farms, which meant having to travel into town to do their shopping. This was the age of the mom‐and‐pop shops on main street America. But then Sears made it easier. Their mail‐order catalog meant you could shop from the comfort of your home. When Americans moved to the suburbs, department stores and malls became the most efficient way to buy goods. Everything you needed was in one convenient location and you didn't have to wait weeks for your stuff to arrive by mail. Next came Walmart and other big‐box stores. And now we are in the age of Amazon and one‐click shopping.

Like language, people are constantly seeking more efficient ways to buy goods, and they are surprisingly willing to embrace new modes of shopping when an easier way presents itself. At some point we will find yet another easier path. A new technology like AI assistants or drone delivery will reduce the Friction of shopping online, transforming retail all over again.