Ep. 20 – How We Power Progress: Friction vs. Fuel

In episode 6, we explored how certain people in our lives serve as engines that propel us forward or as anchors that can pull us backward. Today, we will look at the elements of forward motion and also a connected concept on how we approach our personal path to progress.

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that there are ways to adjust the control panel of how, when, and how much of our ourselves we are giving in order to get.

When we are starting an action or a goal, we have two key components that comprise the pace and effort needed to drive it from concept to completion. The first is our effort – that’s the personal Fuel we will put into the mental and physical work required to complete this effort. Fuel can be our energy, our mental processing, or even the financial investment of resources required to support the overall journey.

The other component is the Friction, meaning the elements that add to the steps needed, the extent of effort required, and the toll taken to cross the finish line. This can include navigating the input and collaboration needed from others, identifying problem-solving steps, and the tradeoffs or negotiations we make along the way.

Progress – and productivity – require energy. And energy has a cognitive and physiological cost.

Our brain is one of the hungriest parts of your body – it consumes approximately 20% of all of the energy each day. So all of the thinking and doing (and overthinking and overdoing) draws down on the energy reserves. And, like with our actual finances, we can end up going into debt if we’re not balancing what we spend for what we receive.

Back to friction and fuel, let’s use a tangible example. A couple months ago, I bought a new car. As with most big decisions and investments, I spent a lot of time exploring and researching. I also weighed the merits of gas-powered and electric options. Both consume energy, just in different forms.

But it’s not the energy source that matters, it’s also the aerodynamics of the vehicle itself – that’s what we compare to the friction part of this conversation.

The fuel source that is used – whether for our transportation, or for our brains, or our bodies – is about the provisions of power we have at our disposal. We can increase our natural efficiency in some ways, such as with sleep, nutrition, or even habits. We can also apply some torque to our fuel to add extra juice, such as with caffeine, adrenaline, and concentrated bursts of effort.

Friction is the collection of elements that affect the efficiency of how something happens. Friction can be internal and external forces that speed up or slow down our progress. One common friction piece that we all experience is time – the great equalizer. On a car, friction can be the design, the metal and material, and even the add-ons that expand the features of the final product.

Fuel and friction work in tandem, yet we often don’t go back to evaluate how much extra we are carrying or where there could be efficiency gains when we’re charting our path or working on our own efforts. We simply hop into our vehicle and start out on the course because we’re operating on autopilot.

But small adjustments can add to big surges.

One important piece of our progress engine that affects both fuel and friction is our brain. It is the master pilot. Our brain is made up of around 100 billion neurons. These neurons are how to brain deploys the plan. Its messages travel through our cells which are out there receiving sensory input from the world around us, they’re sending motor commands to our muscles, and relaying electrical signals at every step in between.

At the start of each effort, neuroscientists say, our brain is working as a “prediction machine.” Through analytical processing, the brain is looking at your previous knowledge – and behavior – to make inferences about the reason for the incoming sensory information. These hypotheses influence how the brain navigates the course ahead and makes decisions. The more unknown at play, the more the mind will return to its historical archives.

In doing so, that can add friction. We start to use previous steps and mental models instead of finding more efficient ones or relying on the newer and updated skills we already have with us.

However, the brain can also be a source of fuel. We can power up our neural networks and use what is known as a feedforward function. This is where we can modify the process of anticipating results and look at the balance of fuel and friction – where can one complement the other?

So as you’re starting out on a new road or a road that you want to revisit, consider where you are relying too much on predictive shortcuts that aren’t actually shortening anything. Just because you involved that person before, or took that series of steps, or had those concerns then doesn’t mean they need to be part of the path this time around.

Where can you change your fuel source to more organic, clean energy instead of that high-burn that can lead to empty tanks and very low batteries?

And while you’re at it, check the trunk. What stuff is in there that is no longer needed and simply is adding weight? Don’t just follow the automated GPS as you’re moving forward. Check the map, adjust the dials, and consider alternate paths. Look around and see who’s on the path with you as well. Make sure you’re not letting other people drive you to your future.

How you get somewhere is just as important as how quickly. Be sure to use the tools at your disposal and adjust the path so it suits you.

Minimize the friction, extend the fuel, and enjoy the ride.

And as you do, take good care.

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.