Productivity: The Law of Diminishing Returns

4. July 2013 22:34 by Calvin Yu in   //  Tags: ,   //   Comments

When we’re talking about productivity, it’s important to take into account the “human factor” of diminished returns over an extended period of time. The law of diminishing returns basically states that our level of productivity will decrease over time. It seems counter intuitive, but putting more time into a project doesn't necessary translate into getting that project done any faster. In this blog post, we'll explore how the law of diminishing returns affects productivity, as well as, work-around solutions that will keep us high producers.

We’re Not Built Like Robots

Measuring our productivity would be so much simpler if we had the ability to mindlessly crank out widgets like robots. For example, let's say that a robot can produce five widgets in an hour. It's therefore logical to expect that the robot will produce 40 widgets by the end of an eight hour day. Sadly, this is not the case with humans. Let’s take your average office worker, Susan, for example. Let’s assume that, at her best, Susan can produce five reports in an hour. If we applied the same logic as our robot friend, then we would be expecting 40 reports from Susan by the end of her day. However, unlike her robot counterpart, Susan has to deal with inconsistent levels of energy, focus and enthusiasm. So whereas her best productivity might yield five reports in an hour; at her lowest, she might only produce one report in that same hour.

Productivity is Tied to our Level of Energy

Why exactly do we experience lower productivity as the day progresses? Lower productivity is directly tied to having low energy levels. I use the term “energy” loosely here, but it encompasses your physical stamina, your mental focus and your enthusiasm for completing the work as well. Our level of mental and physical energy has its peaks and valleys throughout the day. Being productive is all about intimately knowing when those peaks and valleys occur and choosing the best tasks to complete based on the amount of energy available at that particular time.

A common example is a worker coming back to the office at around 2:00pm after having had a rather large lunch. The worker is tired and doesn't really have much mental focus or stamina to crank out those reports that need to get done. A more strategic plan for that worker would have been to get those reports done during the first half of their day when their mental acuity is fresh and sharp and saved the lower value busywork for after lunch when his energy levels are nearly drained.

Working on a Project is Like an Athletic Event

Working productively on a project should be approached in much the same way as if you were participating in an athletic event. Let’s take a look at the three stages involved:

  • The warm up. Just as an athlete must warm up their muscles and their joints prior to a competition, so too must you allow yourself to gradually ease into working at full capacity. The important part of this stage is not to stop your warm up because stopping delays your ability to reach your peak-performance zone.
  • The peak-performance zone. As you continue working on your task, your productivity will continue to improve. Eventually you’ll hit the optimal point in your productivity - the peak-performance zone. The window of time that you’re able to sustain this optimal level of performance won’t be for very long, but this concentrated bout of time will enable you to achieve quite a bit of work.
  • The decline. Eventually your performance zone will taper off and you’ll find your productivity will start to decrease. The longer that you work in this zone, the less productive you’ll be.

Tips on Staying Productive Throughout Your Day

  • Match the task with your energy levels. Working on a paper isn’t going to be very productive if you’re suffering from low mental energy. Likewise, trying to do yard work when you’re not feeling strong isn't going to be helpful either. The key to being productive is being able to match your current energy levels with the appropriate task.
  • Keep working until you reach your peak-performance zone. It’s not an efficient use of your time to do a couple of similar tasks, stopping before you get “in the zone,” and returning later to finish those tasks because you’ll be producing work out of the warm-up zone, rather than your performance zone. Therefore, it's best to batch up as many similar tasks as possible and work through them until they’re done or until your peak-performance zone has ended.
  • Know when to stop. On the same note as above, you need to know when your peak-performance is on the decline. When you've identified that, you have to ask yourself the question of whether it's worth it to continue working on the project with reduced returns, or switch to a fresh task and revisit the old one at a later time.

 

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