Deep Laziness

Imagine a person who is very lazy at work, yet whose customers are (along with everyone else concerned) quite satisfied. It could be a slow-talking rural shop proprietor from an old movie, or some kind of Taoist fisherman – perhaps a bit of a buffoon, but definitely deeply content. In order to be this way, he must be reasonably organized: stock must be ordered, and tackle squared away, in order to afford worry-free, deep-breathing laziness.

Consider this imaginary person as a kind of ideal or archetype. Now consider that the universe might have this personality.

There is intense laziness apparent in the natural world (which one might come to understand simply by watching household pets). Christopher Alexander (in The Nature of Order, Volume II, pp. 37-39) notes many disparate examples of natural “laziness” that hint at an underlying principle (in history of science, the “principle of least action”): a soap bubble minimizing surface area, Ohm’s law, the shape of a river’s meander. “Many systems do evolve in the direction that minimizes their potential energy,” he says. “The deeper problem is that we are then faced with the question, Why should the potential energy be minimized?”

The Theory of Structure-Preserving Transformations

Underneath the universe’s apparent laziness is a deeper laziness: a manner of generation that preserves existing structure. A “structure-preserving transformation” does not impose arbitrary (conscious, legible) order on the system, but takes its cue from the existing structure, and elaborates and strengthens it. One of Christopher Alexander’s terms for this is “the unfolding of wholeness” – but here a picture will do better than words. Below, the diamond shape forms the basis for subsequent transformations. In the two left columns, the diamonds are subjected to transformations that strengthen and emphasize their shape, then to transformations that build off of that new whole, preserving and elaborating the new structure in a lazy but rather effective way. In the column on the right, the diamond is subjected to structure-destroying transformations that impose new, incompatible order and detract from, rather than strengthen, the original structure.

The structure-destroying transformations are recognizable as mess: competing orders don’t allow for a coherent, harmonious whole. They are not peaceful to look at, and further attempts at structure-preserving elaboration will only “preserve” an ugly, messy structure. On the other hand, simple as they are, the structure-preserving transformations have a bit of quiet ease. You can imagine going on like that, adding dots here and lines there, just as needed, until it is quite elaborate. As long as each transformation preserves the underlying structure, it will retain its wholeness and beauty. They are not based on any pre-existing image; rather, they are “easy, natural steps which arise from the context (ibid. p. 439).” Even decay can be structure-preserving, when the decaying structure was produced by this process: decay reveals underlying levels of organization that are attractively harmonious, because they formed the basis for the elaboration of the whole (e.g. bones, shipwrecks).

What is this underlying structure? It is the “field of centers,” made up of “centers,” a Christopher Alexander term I have written about extensively, and about which my thinking changes each time I write about it (hopefully becoming more correct). A center is an aesthetic concept that is somewhere between geometric, phenomenological, and mystical. It is defined recursively – a center is made up of other centers, and in turn makes up other centers (hence the “field of centers” as the primitive). Centers are the basic building blocks of beauty, except that they’re rarely shaped like blocks. If you look at any beautiful thing, a building or a tree or a hand tool, it will possess strong centers. In the diagram above, the diamond is a center, and each embellishment (and the spaces between, when they form good shapes) is a center. Each new whole, after each structure-preserving transformation, is a center. Centers are “things” – shapes, plants, doorways, furniture, faces, eyes, motifs, bounded spaces, boundaries, clouds. The centers form the seeds for the next structure-preserving transformation.

A step-by-step recipe for beauty:

  1. start with existing centers or create strong ones that harmonize with the environment
  2. elaborate on this structure in a way that preserves and strengthens it
  3. elaborate on this NEW structure, which now includes the most recent elaboration
  4. repeat until done
  5. repair as above, or allow to decay

This is the laziest way to do things, so that is how the universe does it. Clouds are beautiful and never a mess because they are products of structure-preserving processes. However, humans are capable of performing both structure-preserving and structure-destroying processes. Processes governing the built environment have become more structure-destroying over the past century. These processes have no room for iterated elaboration according to emerging structure, and certainly no room for doing so according to how each elaboration feels.

That is too bad, but there’s not much an individual can do about it, unless you’re somehow building your house with your own hands this week. However, I think some version of this generative, elaborating process is at the basis of what we do in general: our repertoire of behaviors, the stuff we spend our time doing.

Effective Laziness

I recently read a study that made the following claim: “As income rises, people’s time use does not appear to shift toward activities that are associated with improved affect.” I’m a bit suspicious of this claim, as the authors don’t seem to count exercise as affect-improving, but there’s clearly truth in it: people seem to be surprisingly bad at using their freedom to feel good, and especially at using it to feel deeply good.

Do we need instructions on how to feel good? I think it’s worse than that – we barely know what feeling is, or how to feel, and if we managed to know, it would be impossible to communicate anyway. And there’s so much mess. Certain activities seem wholly incompatible with deep laziness, and they are often unavoidable. It’s possible to clean the bathroom lazily and with an open heart, but it’s harder to imagine going to the DMV, doing taxes, or navigating medical bureaucracy in such a joyous and mellow mindset. Perhaps it is not that we’re too stupid to please ourselves, but rather that we are effectively forbidden from doing so by the demands placed on us.

With those limitations in mind, consider what it means to have a behavior in your repertoire. Theoretically, you could do any possible activity at almost any time. In reality, most people tend to do the same things over and over, at about the same times, under the same circumstances, over and over. The behaviors actually performed by a particular individual, especially the ones that take up most time, are a small subset of possible behaviors. What do people do when they are bored? It seems like people typically have about three to five things they do. A person who had ten things they often did when bored would strike me as an adventurous outlier.

Somehow, from the ocean of possible behaviors, each human picks mostly a few things to do. Presumably, people choose these behaviors from among the behaviors they are exposed to, finding that they suit their needs well enough at the present time. The behaviors may be triggered by boredom or habit, or arise from appetite (for sleep, food, sex, coffee, quiet, exercise, attention, novelty, etc.). And the behaviors contribute to enhancing some appetites (as exercise enhances appetite for food) and satiating them, in sequence. Again, for each appetite, people usually have only a small number of typical ways of satiating them. I like the image of a lab rate cage, furnished with levers – each lever is a behavior in the repertoire. Some cages only seem to have one lever, and it’s for heroin or something. Other cages have more levers – play video game, send tweet, talk to other rat, cook dinner.

As complex as life seems, a typical human’s behavioral repertoire is made up of a small number of behaviors. These few behaviors make up life; they determine feeling and meaning, moment to moment, day to day. While these few behaviors are intricately connected with each other, resisting legible top-down plans, the system is small enough that it’s tractable.

If you ever meet me in person and want to put me at ease, ask me about running or knitting. These are two of my behaviors, my behavioral centers, and one indication of that is how much I like talking about them specifically. I do feel that there is something special about them, and that they connect to my nature on a fundamental level. In my heart, I think everyone should do mountain running and knitting, because they are the best things.

However, all my detailed explanations of my running ritual have been missing the hedonic point. One person’s ritual is all but useless to another, especially a really good ritual. This is because the good ones are repeatedly adapted and elaborated in the direction of providing better fit for the particular person – structure-preserving transformations, where the only test of whether the transformation is structure-preserving is subjective feeling. At the most profound level, the feeling itself is the most important part of the structure to preserve.

It is the general method for discovering and elaborating behaviors, and not running tips, that is the important thing. Here is the generative method of Christopher Alexander, applied to the way one spends one’s time, in pursuit of deep laziness:

1. Find the centers.

In the context of behaviors, “centers” might be activities, virtues, places, people, ambiances, longings, imaginings, memories, times of day, flavors. A well-developed center will be easy to see; it will produce positive emotion, a feeling of quiet ease, of non-separateness from the world. It will carry many layers of elaboration and generation. It may be completely worked into the fabric of life, touching and intertwining with other centers.

But even if strong centers have not developed, there will still be a foundation for elaboration. A whiff of emotion, a whim, a half-joking suggestion, can be the basis for doing a new behavior or elaborating an old one. In visual art and the built environment, a mistake in the elaboration of a center means having to erase it, or risking permanent damage. With behavior, the cost of mistakes is lower, as the trace is more fleeting. New behaviors can be discarded if they don’t fit. You may find that you are in possession of an aesthetic, which guides change by provisionally excluding most behaviors and provisionally including others on intuitive grounds. An aesthetic can help you sort through possible centers.

Behavioral “centers” are the things that feel most like reflections of your own self, that seem to connect effortlessly to the underlying wholeness in your life. The most important ones tend to have old roots. If there is too much mess around you to see any structure, you can at least observe the pattern of your own soul, which is axiomatically not a mess, and try to find behaviors in the world that have the same nature.

2. Elaborate the centers

No one has a routine that works perfectly, unchanged, forever, every season of the year. (If they did, I doubt they’d be reading this.) On the contrary, behaviors and rituals must change and self-repair as the individual and circumstances change. They also become more beautiful, meaningful, full of life, whole, as they undergo these structure-preserving transitions: increasingly stripped of what is superfluous, intensified, made more comfortable, better fitted into the person’s life as a whole.

A brief worked example: the time I like to run best is the hour before dawn. During coldest part of winter, it’s too cold at that time to go running (pain from cold is the source of misfit). On the other hand, going without running is another kind of pain. My attempted elaborations included making warmer running clothes (effective at cold but not freezing temperatures), going running in the afternoon (too much traffic, and the grey winter city seems dingy in the winter light), and going to the gym to run on a treadmill (that ended up working). Running on a treadmill isn’t very pleasant, but that was the one that worked during the depths of winter, somehow preserving the essential desirability of the summer dawn run. I further elaborated it with yoga and swinging a weight ball around, and as silly and frankly low-status as that seemed to me in the beginning, it was a very pleasurable elaboration. Now that it’s warm enough to run at dawn again, the treadmill is obsolesced for the season, but I still do the other stuff for the fun of it.

Notice the structure, notice the misfit (or just the lack of elaboration), adapt the structure in a way that strengthens it. “Each smaller thing has been given its shape after, and in relation to, the larger thing that was established first,” Christopher Alexander says (ibid., p. 437). “It is that which creates the harmonious feeling, since it is that which makes each part adapted and comfortable.”

3. Repair or allow to decay

Some centers will be receding while others increase in intensity. Even those who crave strict, unchanging routines must adapt their routines to life changes; the deeply lazy are constantly adjusting. Sometimes a behavioral center slips away gradually; sometimes it disappears suddenly. The remaining structure must be adapted, through gradual elaboration, to repair the whole.

This process – the elaboration of personal behavioral centers – is the ongoing work of a lazy life. In the domain of architectural forms, Christopher Alexander distinguishes “generated” forms (those created by repeated elaboration, that is, by structure-preserving transformations) from “fabricated” forms (those created in a top-down manner from a pre-existing image, without any kind of interactive unfolding). In terms of the behavioral repertoire, equivalents might be “elaborated time” (lazy time, experienced as an unfolding and elaboration of behavioral centers) and “scheduled time” (behaviors legibilized and organized top-down to satisfy a pre-existing image of proper behavior, OR the related dread that one has failed at this brutal form of organization).

Elaborated time is reached in easy steps, a natural progression arising from each particular context. Its essence is doing the most natural, lazy thing that accords with the context of the whole person and all of the accompanying circumstances.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Alex Addiego says

    Hi Sarah,

    It would seem the object you’re looking for to describe recursively nested centers derived from one another is a fractal. Infinite complexity can be created via simple rules that take the existing structure as input to produce a new self similar one at each iteration of the feedback process.

    Cool read.

    • Alex Addiego says

      Also at the end I was reminded of this quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

      “Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself….To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountains which sustain life, not the top.”

    • Shannoooooon says

      Christopher Alexander (whom Sarah has studied and written about extensively, as she mentioned in this post) talks about fractals in the works she referenced, actually. It would be pretty hard to miss them, as they are one of the most well-known and tangible instances of the larger pattern she’s talking about. They’re kind of low-hanging fruit, TBH. If she didn’t mention them, I doubt it was because she didn’t know about them.

  2. See Stewart Brand’s definition of a hacker as a “lazy engineer”.

    SB is also responsible for some part of Christopher Alexander’s present fame — A Pattern Language was prominently listed in one of the later Whole Earth Catalogs.

  3. Romeo Stevens says

    >Processes governing the built environment have become more structure-destroying over the past century. These processes have no room for iterated elaboration according to emerging structure, and certainly no room for doing so according to how each elaboration feels.

    Stretch the sense of structure to include the time dimension. Systems are aharmonious when they institute processes with shorter feedback loops than the outlying centers can meaningfully be in resonance with, after which the entire structure simply can not maintain cohesiveness across its parts.

    • Can we try an example for clarification? Is it over optimization of parts rather than focusing on the whole (in personal development for eg, time tracking every activity to make every action as efficient as possible and thus messing up the whole life?)

  4. Ravi Daithankar says

    Good read! Sounds like a detailed explanation of what the idea of ‘organic growth’ really entails and the mechanics of that process.

    I noticed a key difference between the step-by-step recipe you have higher up and the ordered list that constitutes Christopher Alexander’s generative method: creating centers. That should be a pre-step or at least an alternative step to Finding the Centers: Creating or Generating a Center. Sometimes, you can actually generate centers where none seemingly exist, if you persist with and nourish what might look like random scatter to the non-discerning eye. The random scatter has to have a convincing-enough whiff to be a potential center however, and that is solely up to the perception of the individual.

    The best metaphor I can think up is a kaleidoscope, where random tinsel can be curated into a center, if you nourish it right. In the case of a kaleidoscope, the nourishment happens by way of mirrored repetition. But the point is that randomness can be processed into a stable, fertile structure, without overlaying a structure on top of it and without compromising on its essential randomness. The key is to be able to generate a center out of then randomness.

    The resultant structure so obtained is a stable one and can be elaborated upon for further generation. At this stage, looking back, you can argue that you basically just ‘found’ a center, but in real time, I suspect trying to generate a center instinctively is sometimes a more fruitful exercise than trying to ‘find’ one that allegedly exists. The difference is subtle, but key.

    In daily life, any successful ‘innovation’ as it is commonly understood in the business world today falls in the ‘generating a center’ bucket while any ‘scaling’ activity falls squarely in the ‘finding a center’ bucket.

  5. There really is a lot that you can appreciate from laziness, and the patience that develops from it. I have found success in my own work by blocking stresses, and allowing myself open time to relax and find my own laziness, with lots of added music! I’ll turn to my work, pop my on ear headphones in, and allow my mind to relax, and find a comfortable head space to work without pressure. I have chosen to assess behaviors I have had my entire work life that only added stress, and actively adjusted them to work to my advantage.

  6. A deep, underlying apparent laziness to the natural world? A theologically-minded person might even infer that the world was created to enjoy its Creator’s Sabbath rest…

  7. This was an enlightening read. Thank you.

  8. Brad Collins says

    I’m impressed you’ve read The Nature of Order, took me two months to get through all the volumes. It’s not always a comfortable thing to read. You can feel the relentless drive and frustration as Alexander pounds away at something he can clearly see but struggles to articulate in ways that other people to see and understand (deep down at the gut level) as well.

    • It would be an exaggeration to say that I’ve read The Nature of Order – I’ve spent the past two and a half years at least grappling with Book 1, and it’s been the book that I’ve spent the most time with during that time. Some parts I’ve read a dozen times, and I’ve kept trying to distill and write about parts of it. Then a friend asked me about Christopher Alexander’s first amendment suit against Berkeley which I didn’t know anything about, and when I looked into it, Alexander reports that it was about his ability to teach the material specifically in Book 2. So even though I didn’t feel ready for it I started reading that volume, and I was both disturbed and excited that it seemed to be exactly about the mess stuff that I’ve been obsessed with. I know what you mean about the frustration – it’s so hard to communicate!

  9. Benjamin Seet says

    This article is so good! Best article in the entire internet! (Srs, not kidding). A wonderful mix of reflections about life, philosophy, and mathematics.

  10. Clumsy Dad says

    this is brilliant // thanks for sharing … it explains so much