Photo: by David Elikwu, in London

32: Lessons from bears - laze and play

Newsletter 🗞 Apr 26, 2021

Grizzly bears are dangerous, but also lazy, and the way they play makes them live longer. There's a lot we can learn from them.


If you find yourself on the business end of a grizzly bear you're probably in deep trouble. You've likely heard dozens of stories about marauding bears stalking hikers and travellers, showing up unannounced near houses and campsites, and terrorising small villages. In such a situation, you might assume you were being hunted. That's not always the case.

According to a recent study, it seems grizzly bears traverse landscapes in the same way that humans do—they favour flat paths over slopes and gentle speeds over sprints. Like water, they often take the easy way out—the path of least resistance. Apparently, the only reason people so frequently run into them on mountain trails is that bears can't be bothered to walk uphill, even when it would be more efficient to do so. They'll take the easy path if one exists. And if the easy road also happens to be a conveyor belt of human-shaped snacks, so be it.

The researchers had expected the wild bears to move at their most efficient speed whenever possible. But in reality, their average pace travelling through Yellowstone was a pokey and physiologically inefficient 1.4 miles per hour.

Bears almost invariably chose the least-steep route to get anywhere, even when it required extra time.

Lazy but dangerous

In fact, studies had already shown that interactions with humans were altering the lifestyles of bears. They're becoming lazy and fat because we're making it too easy to find snacks. Their growing population has increased the pressure on food sources in high wilderness areas, so they'll mosey on down to the fields, grazing on alfalfa and eating apples.

"We've got bears spending the whole summer eating oats in the field, out there with the elk and the deer, and getting fatter and fatter," said Jamie Jonkel, a grizzly manager and wildlife conflict specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state government's conservation agency.

"They've started really loving the good life, much like the average American," said Jonkel, who led a tour of reporters from the Society for Environmental Journalists.

Bears are far from the only dangerous predators that live largely idle lives. All your favourite wild animals, to some extent or another, are bums. Pythons, for example, sleep for 18 hours a day. It seems humans are the only ones still obsessed with squeezing value from every waking moment. We've engineered ourselves out of the need to hunt and must find other work to fill our waking hours.

In Divine Comedy, the 14th-century epic poem by Dante Alighieri, Dante is led through circles of Hell, meeting the worst of sinners. While ascending the Mountain of Purgatory he encounters the Sloth - one of seven deadly sins. Idle hands are the devil's workshop, says the holy book. But maybe there is something to learn from the sloth—and the bear.


Laziness as excuse

Growing up my mother always had a quote up her sleeve about the dangers of laziness. Any signs of excess leisure were met with a quip from Proverbs. Go to the ant, you sluggard!

In the Bible, laziness is typically imputed as causing futility and ruin—procrastination and death.

The converse case is an argument for laziness as tactical resource allocation. "I'm just resting my eyes so I can be more focused". "If I try too hard, the creative muse won't come to me". Steven Pressfield, like my mother, is keen to disabuse us of such notions:

Pressfield preaches that the artist, writer, and all who seek to create are infantrymen. Progress is measured in yards of dirt and paid for in blood. The muse favours working stiffs and hates prima donnas. To the Gods, the biggest sin is pride and preciousness. The muse only rewards those who show up and work daily.

I'd humbly submit that the ideal might be a valley between the two. That line which distinguishes laziness as an exercise from laziness as an excuse.

Energy conservation, maximum impact

“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” — Robert A. Heinlein

As a junior in a corporate law firm, you may often be tasked with any manner of mundane activities in the spirit of getting the deal done. I remember one of the first simple but deceptively brain-numbing tasks I was given was cross-referencing and sorting data across multiple spreadsheets. I was given a two-week deadline. I'd rather have spent two weeks smacking my head against the wall.

So, in a typical slothful fashion, instead of doing the work I spent three days researching easier ways to accomplish the task. On the fourth day, I cobbled together a VBA code in Excel. It was a hot Thursday afternoon and fall had yet to make way for winter. I finished my code and hit 'run'. Twenty minutes later the work was done. I packed my bag and went to the park.


Reduce decision making

It can often work in your favour to procrastinate intentionally. Several studies show the cognitive gains we make from taking naps and walking. Edison was a famous napper, and Picasso purportedly rose at 11 but only started working in the afternoon after a few hours of leisure. However, once he started, he would work until dusk, often standing for several hours in front of his canvas. In his words: “While I work I leave my body outside the door, the way Muslims take off their shoes before entering a mosque.”

As I mentioned in issue 30, it's often not worth locking yourself in a room to try and get something done. If you're struggling to concentrate, plan for moments of distraction and enjoy them. Take a nap, or a walk, recharge, and return ready to work.

Abstinence as a tool typically doesn’t work because when you finally give in, your brain recognises that the only way to relieve the discomfort of telling yourself no is by telling yourself yes.

Consider the metabolic workload of the tasks you're engaging in and plan breaks after highly engaging activities. Social engagements can be rejuvenating in short bursts but draining in long ones. Discipline is a great tool to sharpen, but it's a muscle that can be easily over-worked. As Tim Ferris frequently says, think of one decision you can make that removes 100 further decisions.

Like the bears, Tim had been pondering how much he wanted to specialize in speed versus finding targets that don’t require speed. To resist the urge of feeling FOMO with any new and exciting book, and avoid deciding which friends to reject when they sent him advance copies of their books, he resolved to read no 'new' books in 2020.

Advance decisions like these limit cognitive overhead by managing cognitive throughput.

Gary Keller applies a similar framework by asking one focusing question whenever presented with several options, or planning a course of action:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Learn to play, play to live

Greg Mckeown shared plenty of great studies and anecdotes about the myriad benefits of play for adults. This is our second lesson from bears.

Researchers have discovered that bears who played the most tended to survive the longest. Explaining this, Bob Fagan, a researcher who spent fifteen years studying grizzly bears said: “In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for a changing planet.”

In his book Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, Jaak Panksepp drew similar conclusions: “One thing is certain, during play, animals are especially prone to behave in flexible and creative ways.”

According to Greg, “play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged." Play fuels exploration in several ways:

First, play broadens the range of options available to us. It helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made. It opens our minds and broadens our perspective. It helps us challenge old assumptions and makes us more receptive to untested ideas. It gives us permission to expand our own stream of consciousness and come up with new stories.

Second, play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain. You know how it feels: you’re stressed about work and suddenly everything starts going wrong. You can’t find your keys, you bump into things more easily, you forget the critical report on the kitchen table. Recent findings suggest this is because stress increases the activity in the part of the brain that monitors emotions (the amygdala) while reducing the activity in the part responsible for cognitive function (the hippocampus)—the result being, simply, that we really can’t think clearly.

Dr Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, has spent decades studying the power of play, having reviewed over 6,000 “play histories”—case studies that explore the role of play in each person’s childhood and adulthood.

In his book on how play shapes the brain, Brown calls play a “state of being,” “purposeless, fun and pleasurable.” With play, the focus is on the actual experience, rather than accomplishing a goal. "Play is something done for its own sake".

Making the time to indulge in convivial, unpredictable play isn't just a pleasant luxury, it can help us live longer, better and happier lives.


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If you have any nuggets to share about laziness, play, and other wild animals, I’d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment or send me a tweet!

Read on for this week’s recommendations >>

A man lying outside with his dog in London: A photo by David Elikwu
Photo: by David Elikwu, in London

Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. Play by Stuart Brown - seen. An exploration of the role of play in our happiness, imagination and cognition.
  2. Deep Work by Cal Newport - impulsively bought. It’s been recommended to me enough times. A guide for learning how to work despite distraction.
  3. Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris - read. Over the last decade, for up to two hours at a time, Tim has interviewed over 200 best-in-class experts, athletes and entrepreneurs. He’s summarised some of the key learnings here.

Things I’m loving

Films and shows:

  • The Falcon and The Winter Soldier - I have absolutely no problem with every aspect of the Marvel Universe being milked for as much gold as Disney can carry, as long as they keep making movies and shows this awesome.
  • Master of None - Revisiting this on Netflix because I remember it being hilarious. Probably Aziz Ansari at his best.

Resources:

  • See a Satellite Tonight - An awesome project that lets you piggyback on satellites, and uses Google StreetView to visually highlight the stars and formations you should see every night from your house.

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