Getting Complacent

Not too long ago, I wasn’t writing regularly. For instance, I would write one day and get sidetracked by things on other days. I hadn’t been doing the work sincerely and found myself running low on the creative buffer that I had worked so hard to build. I was now writing hand-to-mouth week to week, meaning I was working on a draft one week that I intended to publish the following week. This has happened to me at least a few times since I started writing. Each time, I would run out of this (12-week) creative buffer for which I worked so hard. In other words, I became complacent. Needless to say, this did not happen overnight, but slowly over the course of a few months. This is somewhat correlated to the idea of the boiling frog, which I explored in the last draft.

This begs the obvious question — why is it that we sometimes don’t learn things even the hard way despite our experience for the contrary? Why do we wait to do things last minute? Why do we wait for them to reach a critical state before we act on them? In other words, why do we get complacent when things are going well?

I am reminded of The Tortoise and the Hare story, where the hare takes the initial lead only to rest on his laurels later and finds himself overtaken by the tortoise, who wins the race. We can all relate to the hare in the story, working ourselves to exhaustion until we are forced to take a break. It’s the metaphor for how we lead our lives. It happens all the time, be it in our jobs, business, sports, or what have you. We get stuck in a rut and we stay in that, usually for the worse.

Organizations such as Kodak, Nokia, or Blackberry — and many others who once enjoyed a sizeable market share and profitability in their respective categories — have since become obsolete as they refused to innovate and adapt to the times. In other words, they became complacent with what worked and they eventually bit the dust. They didn’t see it coming (or chose to live in denial about it), but the writing was on the wall all along (ever since the advent of the iPhone, for example).

To me, complacency means a few things, which include:

Here are some reasons why we get into this mindset:

It’s precisely when things are going well that we find ourselves taking it easy. We might even go to the extent that we let our “success” get to our head just as easily as taking our failures to heart. In the aforementioned example, we become complacent when we have a buffer of some sort (that shouldn’t be the reason for not having a buffer to begin with, but more on that later).

As I wrote in an earlier draft:

When success increases, urgency often decreases. It’s common for individuals, organizations, and even sports teams to get more complacent as they achieve more success, but it’s precisely then that they should be on their toes because that’s when they have momentum on their side.

Sometimes, we get comfortable and complacent in our work and do things the same way because it’s easier to keep the status quo than to question it. In other words, we become slaves to our process. Having to change would also mean admitting we are wrong (but we are wiser now), for which no one wants to lead things or take responsibility. Besides, it takes work to change things.

Then, there are times when we have optimized things so much that we can’t take the big leap anymore. For instance, if you have a set process (static) with which you work with clients, it wouldn’t be a great process if you used the same process with all your clients and didn’t keep fine-tuning it. You need to continually refine your process until you reach a point where you start from scratch when you decide that it’s time for a fresh beginning. Sure, it helps to learn from our processes and make them better, but at some point you have to start anew.

In our personal lives, we might keep doing the same negative habits such as eating poorly and/or not exercising consistently. It’s easy to get complacent in our poor habits. Over time, we become our own enemies or we can choose to keep doing the right things over time (by virtue of our positive habits) for them to compound.

Here are some ideas for dealing with complacency:

Keep doing the work sincerely. Never rest on your laurels. It’s exactly when things are going well that we should stay on our toes, not take things for granted, and always be on the offensive. As they say in sports, playing offense is the best defense. It’s just as true in life.

Always be learning from your process and refining it, but remember that you can optimize things only so much before going back to the drawing board at some point, which leads to my next point.

We must never be afraid to start from scratch. We need to ask ourselves occasionally if starting from a fresh perspective can lead to better results. Sometimes we go so far through a strategy that becomes stale and we need to look for new ideas. For instance, find some part of your process that you are super comfortable with and start anew. Remember, things don’t have to be broken in order for you to improve upon them. You have to keep reinventing yourself and stay with the times.

As William Faulkner once said:

In writing (or any creative pursuit), you must kill all your darlings.

Always strive to find holes in your ideas and gaps in your thinking. Have constructive debates with those you trust and who have a different perspective. Unless you are willing to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.

We are always busy doing the things that we don’t create the space to think about them. We need to regularly look at the things we are doing because it’s too easy to get comfortable and not even question them anymore. We are so close to things that we don’t recognize that we’re doing things too commonly. We need to be wary of our own personal biases.

It’s easy to get complacent when things are going well, but keep doing the work without worrying about the outcome. Be wary of your personal cognitive biases, and look to be proven wrong so you can learn and grow. Never be afraid to question things and start from scratch because you can always improve things even when there is nothing wrong with them. Never rest on your laurels — especially when you have momentum on your side.

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