Doing Things The Stupidest Possible Way

[this article was originally written for Puttylike]


Earlier this year an email newsletter inspired me with a new motto:

“I’m only doing easy things from now on”.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t purely intended encourage my natural laziness.

The idea is that doing ‘easy’ things—meaning activities which come naturally—puts us in a state of flow, so we achieve more overall. I’ve written before about how 20% of the work often generates 80% of results—so, by the same logic, skipping the remaining 80% of work frees up time for the minority of activities which actually achieve results.

In short, this is usually known as working smarter, not harder. (A quick example: I noticed I was spending lots of time creating and sending marketing materials which had not-quite-zero effect. So I simply stopped, and now I have more time to waste spend productively, and my marketing barely suffered at all.)

But Have You Ever Considered Working Less Smartly?!

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the man who walked across an entire country in a completely straight line. [content note: this video series is highly entertaining, but contains colourful language and is probably NSFW in standard work environments.]

The sheer pointlessness of his goal makes it somehow beautiful. I was addicted to the drama of his journey—in particular, how he sticks to his completely arbitrary goal in the face of impassable, and even dangerous, obstacles.

Angry landowners, barking dogs, rushing rivers, sharp fences, sheer slopes… the very nature of the challenge means that he has to go through or over obstacles which we spend our lives going around.

Lately, I’ve found myself comparing my own problems to his journey, and perhaps there’s actually something to learn from his naïve approach.

Obviously, going straight through obstacles is often the silliest possible way to approach them.

The Mission Across Wales is an hilarious homage to doing something in the silliest way possible—as he acknowledges many, many times. (Not only is his idea fundamental silly, his execution is occasionallynot the most sensible, shall we say.)

As a result, it’s fascinating to watch somebody learn first-hand precisely why, say, paths go up hill in a zig-zag pattern, instead of straight up the sheer side. Or why we conventionally go around other people’s property instead of through.

But watching these videos, I’ve realised that doing things the silliest possible way is a great way to figure out improvements.  After all, the tricky bit in working smarter is deciding in advance what the smart way to do something actually is.

Just as climbing a hill by walking in a completely straight line forces us to think “hmm, maybe this would be easier if we zig-zagged”, attempting a task in the most silly,  most ‘straight-line’ way can stimulate ideas for speeding it up.

Let’s take a ludicrous example. How could we learn to, say, play piano in the most ‘walking in a straight line’ manner? I imagine something like pressing all the keys in every possible combination until we figured out by trial and error which ones sound good together!

Obviously, nobody would actually do this, and if you tried, you’d very quickly think “this is silly, maybe I should ask for help”. In other words, doing the stupid thing makes you realise what the smart thing is: take lessons.

Let’s see how this approach could work with another common modern problem: staying on top of email.

Straight-line Approach: Replying to every single email, in order, as soon as they’re received.

Ideas for Improvement based on thinking about the Straight Line Route for literally thirty seconds: 

  • Set a specific, limited time within each day or week to reply to emails. 
  • Only reply to important emails. 
  • Unsubscribe from valueless spam, so emails are higher quality overall.
  • Prioritise emails by urgency as they arrive, reply to them in urgency order later.

I’m not saying “this is the definitive email system”, or even a good email system. These are just ideas generated off the top of my head from looking at the silly route.

In general: “look at the silly route for doing something, and see if it gives you ideas for improvement.”

This isn’t a revolutionary idea… but that’s the point. Taking a slightly more efficient path around an obstacle we climb every day will save tonnes of time and energy in the long run.

This works for all kinds of regular tasks. Do you spend a lot of time on household chores, picking clothes in the morning, or making lunch? What’s the silliest way you could approach these tasks? And how would you improve that silly process?

You can apply this thinking to your current big projects too. What’s the silliest way to learn a language, or to build a boat? How would you improve it?

If you feel like it, try asking yourself these questions:

  1. What massive obstacles are you climbing right now, or what little obstacles do you climb frequently? 
  2. What’s the most straight-line way you could climb these?
  3. How would you tell somebody doing it the silly way to improve their process?

Doing things the silliest possible way might lead to an awesome video series! But merely thinking about silly routes might help us to take a smarter path around life obstacles in future.

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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