As we approach finals, the law of diminishing returns seems to be an apt topic relating to productivity. You’ve perhaps heard the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder.” It might seem like a nice aspirational goal, but how much truth is in a tagline on an office poster?
The law of diminishing returns is a fundamental concept of economics, usually applied to small businesses maximising their efficiency. So how might this apply to us on a personal level? As we prepare to cram for our exams, we also must remember that the more hours we throw at something won’t always make it better. Sometimes it might make the situation worse. Thus, it’s important to know when to stop, when to take a break, and how to use our time more efficiently.
The technical side
A good way to explain this concept is through a business model. Imagine you are a pizza shop owner who needs to hire staff. There is only one oven and it’s a small kitchen space. While two employees might help produce more pizzas than one employee, if you hired 10 people, you’d have people sitting idle in a cramped space and your employees can’t do their jobs well. It’s simply inefficient.
Although workers are necessary for your business to function, at a certain point, too many employees make your business run inefficiently. Another example might be how the flowerpot on your windowsill needs water to stay alive. Yet, if you were to pour a gallon of water on your poor gardenias, there would be water all over your floor and your flower might die from overhydration. The problem isn’t easily reversible and has some lasting negative effects. The goal is to pre-plan the optimal amount of water to give your plant before making the situation worse by wasting resources and damaging the end product.
How this applies to your work
Envision the following scene: you are a hard working, eager student feeling the pressure of your academics. You are preparing for a particularly foreboding exam, or perhaps you are finishing a dissertation or general essay. Achieving that good mark is crucial and you’ve diligently hunkered down in the library. It’s been days since you’ve had human contact. A rumour has emerged that you’ve fled to Nepal, intending to live as a goat. You begin to hear auditory hallucinations from your recalled library books. It’s 2 am, you’re high on caffeine and you’ve made peace with your god. The end is nigh.
Hopefully, you can see that this is a terrible situation. If you can’t, I’m telling you now that it is. You should not only stop now, but you also should’ve never gone down this path in the first place. It’s 2 am and you are so overtired it will take a week you don’t have to recuperate. Despite feeling fairly confident during lecture season, you can no longer remember the difference between Frederick the Great and Freddie Mercury. Yes, studying for your exams is key to getting a good grade, but throwing more hours at your work didn’t necessarily make it better. Your revision has become sloppy, you’ve lost sleep, and somehow you’re more lost than when you began.
The law of diminishing returns is about knowing when it’s time to stop. Three hours of revision will be much more productive than only one. If it’s only an hour, you have to spend time setting up, getting comfortable at the library, getting in the groove – and you might have finished a few pages of scribbled annotations. By hour three, you’ve gotten well into the groove of your work, you have a system, and items have been checked off your to-do list.
It’s when you’ve been in the library since 9 am and you are the only one left in the building that your marginal productivity has massively declined. In the beginning, you were knocking items off your revision checklist. Now, on your tenth hour today without a break, your eyes have drooped in exhaustion and you are more easily distracted. One minute you’re factoring differential equations, the next you are scrolling Facebook, yet still determined to keep working. But you are working poorly. You are wasting resources of time and energy by not taking breaks. Each day you return to work more exhausted than the last, you are less efficient. What’s worse is this exhaustion has lasting effects on your long term efficiency. When it comes time to sit your exams or submit this paper, it will not be of the highest quality. Despite your hard work, amidst your exhaustion, you might make mistakes.
What can you do to be more productive?
The most important piece of advice I can give is two-fold. Schedule out your life in advance as much as possible. Plan out your day in hour slots. Create outlines for what you want to be accomplished. Build plans of action for what sections need to be covered (and how many pages that might take). It might take some time in the beginning but it will save you from aimlessly covering your material.
Secondly, surround yourself with people who will keep you accountable – for both your work and taking breaks. It’s all about trying to strike a balance. I personally love the library because seeing others keeping on tasks is a fantastic motivator, and having friends who are willing to grab a coffee break might be that needed de-stressor. Additionally, go to bed at reasonable hours instead of your sleep schedule being 4 am to 11 am. You’ll only end up worse off. The “Work smarter, not harder,” is aspirational, but also achievable. The key is knowing when it’s time to stop.
As I complete this article, I’d like to thank my mother who inspired this piece by telling me I need to get more sleep, myself.