Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Get Your Life Back (Part Three)

Businesses understand the point of diminishing returns. They exist to maximize profits. They have to know at what point the making of one more widget not only adds nothing to their bottom line, it actually takes away from it. That last widget will net them zero profit because the amount they will get from selling it equals the amount it costs them to make it. That’s where they stop. But this principle applies to many aspects of your working life as well. If you learn to use it, you will have gone a long way towards reclaiming your life.

Remember, the goal we are discussing here is to get more done at work in less time, so you can give more time to your loved ones and your own needs without making your employer feel cheated. This tip involves learning to recognize that point at which more time at a certain task will not bring more or better results. That’s the time to put a full stop to it and mark it done, or at least done for now.

Now, if you are the type of person who likes to cut corners and take shortcuts and generally do a substandard job on a regular basis, this tip will not help you. This tip is for the obsessive perfectionist. It’s for the person who won’t leave well enough alone, who pours unprofitable time into a project or task simply trying to make it perfect.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will my continued efforts make things significantly better?
  2. Will my continued efforts make a difference to anyone?

If the answer to these questions is no, it’s time to put a period to it. As Timmy admonished George Costanza, “From now on, when you take a chip, just take one dip and end it!” Let me give you a couple of examples.

I was working on a project late one night. I had gotten a lot done, but I wasn’t finished. I was close to the end, it was within sight. There’s a part of me that just wants to get it done, get it off the radar screen, so I was tempted to keep plugging away. But I realized that, even though I might finish it that night, from that point on I was too tired to make it any good. It wouldn’t be up to snuff. I decided that I’d reached the point of diminishing returns (PODR). More time that night would not be efficient. I knew that there was a more efficient use of my time at that moment. So I went to bed and fell asleep. It was, indeed, a very effective sleep. The next morning I finished up in 10 minutes and did a great job of it.

When I write, I know that I can always make it better. Every time I go over what I’ve written, I can spot something I could say more graphically, or more pithily, or more artfully, or more…you get the idea. I’m not talking about errors in grammar or stupid typos; those should be completely eradicated if possible. However, I know that, at some point, the improvement I might achieve would not be worth the time it would take to achieve it. I’ve arrived at the PODR.

If you learn to know when you’ve reached that point, and if you can muster the discipline to call it quits right there, you will be able to do excellent work in less time.

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