Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Challenge to Laziness

Written by: on February 27, 2023

I was struck by the continuation of a theme from last week’s reading of Edwin Friedman[1] to this week in David Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.[2] I am going to try to show how I wove the concepts of Friedman’s non-anxious leadership and Kahneman’s System 1 and 2 thinking together.

Last week, in the online discussion about non-anxious leadership, several of us took that concept to parenting because…well, parenting is not for the faint of heart. This week, I listened to an episode of Hidden Brain where a research professor, Iris Mauss was reviewing her findings on happiness.[3] During the interview, she shared a very relatable story about having a newborn. And trying to get that newborn to sleep.

A lot of us lived the story she told: It is nighttime. You rock your child to sleep, and you put them to bed. They instantly wake up and start to cry. You, the probably wearied parent, sigh, stumble yourself to your child’s side, and somehow start to comfort them. You are EXHAUSTED, but you do it anyway because you instinctively think: “what kind of parent would I be if I didn’t comfort them?” It is the quintessential story of new parenthood. I remember the power of those instincts- what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking.

Mauss goes on to explain what happened with her psychologically as this pattern repeated itself in her family’s sleep routine: “I hit a wall, and I had to accept what was… I didn’t DO anything differently; my perspective on it changed…That moment I changed my perspective, the tension left… He still cried…but it became something we shared… part of the richness of our relationship.” (emphasis mine) She reframed her instinctual feelings about her son’s suffering.

What a beautiful way to describe how challenging one’s instinctive, or System 2 thinking leads to a non-anxious leadership perspective: suffering becomes part of the richness of relationship rather than something to fear.

However, forcing ourselves to move from instinctive thinking to strategic analysis is a challenge. A review I read on Kahneman’s work says the following:

“Since thinking slow requires conscious effort, System 2 is best activated when we have self-control, concentration, and focus. However, in situations when we don’t have those – like when we feel tired or stressed — System 1 impulsively takes over, coloring our judgment.”[4]

Is there anyone who does not relate to feeling tired or stressed and having a deficit of self-control, concentration, and focus?

According to some studies, it is estimated that we are faced with 35,000 choices every day.[5] In a previous blog, I also referenced the exponential increase in information that is available for making those choices. Evidently, the environment required for the sophisticated analytical nature of System 2 thinking is not easily accessed in today’s day and age.

This societal inability to think critically goes beyond setting up newborn sleep routines. In recent news, I read an article of President Biden’s initiative to crack down on “junk fees” in various services. The report cited Kahneman’s work as evidence calling for this legislation stating that: “We lead busy lives that keep us from analyzing every purchase, and we get distracted by salient but misleading information (like a low list price). Big companies, with the resources at their disposal, have learned to take advantage of these limitations.”[6] One could also look our current obsession with the use of AI as related to our cry for help in managing the data we are having to manage.[7]

It is logical to connect this chronic over exposure to decisions and data as a contributing factor to troubling societal concerns such as unconscious bias and increasing social polarity. Operating within the neurological ruts we have worn through our own lives that are supported by cultural patters woven over generations is easier than challenging our instinctive thinking. As Kahnman states, the “law of least effort…asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action…Laziness is built deep into our nature.”[8]

I am tempted to point to others for examples of an over-reliance on instinctual thinking, and to wag a judgmental finger in admonishment that “if people would just stop being lazy in their thinking, we could get something done!” That was my first draft of this blog. Upon further reflection, however, I suspect that I have areas where suspending my default System 1 thinking and engaging in deeper consideration could warrant meaningful and surprising results. For example:

  • Instead of going through the motions of a church service without really internalizing the words I am parroting.
  • Suspending my System 1 thinking when I am listening and responding to co-workers, friends, children or my spouse.

There are a lot more, that I could cite here. I am afraid there are many things of beauty and creativity I miss because of lazy thinking. I am struck this morning that to continue in the path of relying on System 1 thinking is the equivalent of sitting on my couch and watching videos about someone else’s travel adventures. This call to challenge laziness is a call to dig new neurological paths; to challenge our assumptions. It is a call to get off the couch and go explore for ourselves.


[1] Edwin H. Friedman and Peter Steinke, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (10th Anniversary, Revised Edition) (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2017).

[2] Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

[3] “Happiness 2.0: The Path to Contentment | Hidden Brain Media,” February 6, 2023, https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/happiness-2-0-the-path-to-contentment/.

[4] Anika Nayak, “This Bestselling Self-Help Book Vastly Improved My Decision-Making Skills — and Helped Me Spot My Own Confirmation Bias,” Business Insider, accessed February 26, 2023, https://www.businessinsider.com/guides/learning/thinking-fast-and-slow-book-summary-review.bu

[5] “How Many Decisions Do We Make Each Day? | Psychology Today,” accessed February 25, 2023, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stretching-theory/201809/how-many-decisions-do-we-make-each-day.

[6] David Leonhardt, “A Fight Against Sludge,” The New York Times, February 9, 2023, sec. Briefing, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/09/briefing/biden-junk-fees.html.

[7] Kevin Roose, “Bing (Yes, Bing) Just Made Search Interesting Again,” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast), February 8, 2023, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2774301794/citation/6B7CF35103AA4309PQ/2;

For a strange and cautionary tale on the rise if AI, also read: Kevin Roose, “A Conversation With Bing’s Chatbot Left Me Deeply Unsettled,” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast), February 16, 2023, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2777132923/citation/A2FEFD59BAB84B45PQ/2.

[8] Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” 35.

About the Author

Jennifer Vernam

8 responses to “A Challenge to Laziness”

  1. mm John Fehlen says:

    Jennifer, you truly have a brilliant mind, and I am so impressed at your ability to connect dots. Well done.

    I was particularly drawn to this reference, in light of some work I’m doing on my NPO: “a non-anxious leadership perspective: suffering becomes part of the richness of relationship rather than something to fear.”

    I find it so difficult, do you as well (?), to differentiate in regards to suffering? I appreciated the connection you made to child-rearing. How often have I (and my wife) picked up our newborns prematurely when they were crying? Do we bail out young leaders prematurely as well, rather than allowing them to struggle a bit through the problem?

    How much do we miss because of that lazy thinking? Such a good question!

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      Thanks for your kind words, John. I am glad my thoughts hit home.

      Your remarks make me think less about actual suffering and more about how I react to the fear of suffering. I worry about potential bad outcomes that are not yet even a sparkle in mayhem’s eye. Before we have the actual concern on the horizon, I can find myself wringing my hands in worry.

      What do I miss because of the time spent fretting on the hypothetical? And, if I were successful in protecting myself and others from the things I worry about, how many valuable experiences/life lessons would go un learned? It’s counterintuitive (system 2 thinking!) but I guess I should be thankful that my worrying does not actually prevent the trials we need to have.

  2. mm Russell Chun says:

    In our “synoptical buddies interview” you asked for a definition of critical thinking. I responded with an example from the synoptic gospels. Four Authors, who witnessed the life of Jesus. Their presence called us to synthesize the four viewpoints. THEN you said, understanding the four gospels ALSO requires the presence of Holy Spirit to guide our reading and understanding. I loved that. In our struggle with System 1 – knew jerk reactions and System 2 – analytical reactions. Perhaps there is a place for PRAYER that asks the Spirit to guide us. We are called to pray unceasingly, perhaps our default is prayer, the System 1 or System 2? Thoughts.

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      Good idea, Russell! I wonder if a way I want to direct my prayer in this area is for a willingness to challenge my system 1 and the energy to use my system 2? I think the issue is partially awareness and partially attitude.

  3. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Jennifer, I still have Friedman on my brain and have been considering the connections between what these great thinkers are writing about as well. I have been questioning my critical thinking skills for weeks now. I am realizing in a big way that is the main point of this doctoral journey after all! My brain hurts! You mentioned, “…System 1 thinking leads to a non-anxious leadership perspective: suffering becomes part of the richness of relationship rather than something to fear.” I am wondering how you manage the discomfort of “suffering” as you move toward System 2 thinking?

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      oooh! you just highlighted a typo in my post! (someone needs to talk to my editor) I actually meant to say: “challenging one’s instinctive, or System 2 thinking leads to a non-anxious leadership perspective: suffering becomes part of the richness of relationship rather than something to fear.” As in: this idea of embracing suffering as a rich part of our experience is counterintuitive.

      I need to think more about your question. My gut response is that the way I manage the discomfort is by reframing it into a narrative that ties suffering to growth, but I worry that this is too trite, and may ignore our real need to appropriately acknowledge suffering and allow for that process of lament. I guess part of moving to system 2 is holding two discordant truths at the same time. What do you think?

      • Jenny Dooley says:

        Maybe I made the typo! I seem to find my own too late quite regularly. I think it is a both/and. Thinking, learning, suffering, and lament (not too mention fear and anxiety) are all multifaceted processes which can be very overwhelming. Slowing down, paying attention, and attending to one small thing works well for me…once I have gotten sufficiently out of System 1 thinking:) Suffering has much to teach us, but it can be a very hard process to get to that place.

  4. mm Tim Clark says:

    “I am afraid there are many things of beauty and creativity I miss because of lazy thinking.”

    I can’t get that statement out of my head, Jennifer. I have so often connected my creative and artistic thinking to System 1, and the “Lord Business” side of things to System 2, but there is so much wonder and beauty and joy waiting for us do discover if we would stop and process more deeply.

    This was huge for me. Thanks!

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