Diminishing Returns to Work

Noah Adelstein
8 min readAug 19, 2017

“Don’t spread yourself too thin”

I heard it all of the time as a college freshman. Upperclassmen telling me that they got involved in too many things and couldn’t handle them.

At the time it seemed quite obvious. If you get involved in too many different things, you won’t be able to spend enough time on each one. DUH.

What I never heard was why they ended up in those situations, beyond “I felt like I needed to be super involved and do a lot since everyone else was.”

That is a common reason for many people, but, still, I don’t think that college kids (or high schoolers or adults for that matter) want to be so involved that they feel stressed or suffocated. Being very involved in a few things is objectively very sensible to many.

So, as I’m sitting here about to begin my junior year of college, why is it that I have allowed myself to be “spread so thin”?

Opportunity

I’m sure this isn’t the case for everyone, but for me, the idea of opportunity did me in.

In high school I was taught to take advantage of opportunities when they came my way. Whether that was to write for the school newspaper, run for a class election, or tryout for the higher level soccer team. In high school, though, I didn’t have that many opportunities within my immediate vicinity. I also didn’t ever think to look outside of my vicinity. That combination led to me staying busy with sports and extracurriculars, but not being drowned in involvements.

The perceived available opportunities increases with time

I believe this for two reasons.

  1. Environment

Being in college, where there are thousands of students, hundreds of student groups, sports teams, opportunities for research, a bajillion classes and often a vibrant city around campus naturally leads to there being more opportunities available.

2. Experience

The more that you learn and experience, the more you realize how vast the world of opportunities really are. After being in San Francisco for the summer, for example, I have come to realize that I have the opportunity to reach out to any company (regardless of location) to see if I can get involved. I have also realized what types of opportunities exist in which I could get involved (design, growth, sales, social media, etc). There are so many people, student groups at college, and businesses that need help. If you know where to look you see just how many needs there are.

Say yes to opportunities?

This is where the paradox begins (and where it caught me). We’re told to say yes to unique opportunities. It makes sense. Try new things, get involved and in the process you’ll make an impact and learn. So, when we get to college and there are all of these new opportunities, saying yes makes sense.

Then, as we learn more and realize there are even more opportunities available, we continue to say yes and it compounds.

Our peers seem to be doing so much. We also tend to have unrealistic expectations of how long things will take us. Therefore, as new opportunities become available, it’s easy to think that we both should and could take them on.

This is of course an over generalization, but I can’t imagine that I’m the only one that is in this situation for a similar reason.

A sense of obligation

Obligation is the other piece that factors in, and, at this point, this is where I struggle more.

The getting over0involved makes sense, but, naturally, as you do more things you also realize what you like and don’t like, how much time you want to have to yourself, and we develop a better understanding of how long things will take us.

Once the realization hits that there are all of these available opportunities, I fell prey to how I threw myself into them. I’m someone that likes to think I give the things I am involved in my all, and I do so as quickly as I can to demonstrate commitment and interest.

That makes sense from the perspective of rising through the ranks and assuming more responsibility, but it’s quite detrimental when you change your mind about how involved you want to be in something.

You give people the perception that you want to be really involved and that you can assume a lot of responsibility. Expectation setting is a super real thing, and once the expectations are set, any deviation from them can cause emotional distress from others (and even yourself).

How much does it matter?

We can get ourselves hyper involved and if we get to the point where we are in over our heads, then something is going to have to budge. The options?

  • You give up some of your commitments
  • You continue doing them and either

a). Give them less than your full effort

b). Give them 100% and work at an unsustainable pace that will break at some point

It’s a) where I feel like I have ended up, and it’s where I am getting to with this article. (Overcommitting and burning out is a whole other thing).

In some roles there are pretty black and white commitments. If you’re the treasurer for a club you’re in, for example, you have to make sure there’s a budget, that people follow it, that people get reimbursed and so on.

Most of the roles that I have found myself in, and that I see in general, are open ended.

There’s wiggle room and autonomy. Because of that, you can give something 80% and there’s often not a negative consequence.

Some people are perfectionists and the idea of not being able to give something their full attention is terrible. I see more of a grey area.

What are your goals?

For some people, giving 5 things 80% effort instead of 3 things 100% effort might make more sense.

They might be trying to learn a little about a variety of different areas so that they can see what they like the most before dropping the bad ones and doubling down.

If that’s the goal, then it makes sense.

Now, if the goal is to demonstrate to other people how high quality of work you can do, then you want to give things 100%.

Maybe you feel like 80% is enough to demonstrate that you can do high-quality work. Maybe you can bring in other people to help so that 80% is enough. (In that case, though, you should be thinking about whether you’re wasting other people’s time because others have issues with this opportunities thing as well).

Either way, there are diminishing returns

Understanding that there are diminishing returns as you take on more responsibilities is crucial to this goal setting. We can do a lot, but with each additional activity that we take on, we’re getting less from it.

There’s the perspective that the more we do, the more we will learn and accomplish. But, as we take on more and more, the additional value that we are getting from each thing decreases. Eventually, I’d say that the curve becomes negative, where the next activity we take on actually decreases total value that we’re getting from what we do.

The reasons for this are intuitive, but noteworthy, nonetheless.

If I have only one activity that I am doing to learn, make a difference and push myself, then I will be thinking about it all the time. When I think about work or my responsibilities, it’s that one thing that will come up. The more I think about it, the more I will be living in the problems and, by nature, it will make me more prepared each time I get to work and it’ll make me more creative in the work I’m doing.

Now, if I add a second activity, then when I think about my responsibilities, I’ll be thinking about both. I’ll be living in each individual problem less. Now imagine if I add a third or a fourth or a fifth. Not only will I be spending less time in each area, but I might also get stressed out based on the bulk amount of things I want to do, or the fact that I can’t give them my full effort/attention.

So what do you do?

How many things do you get involved in? How do you decide what those things are?

They’re very difficult questions and they’re ones only you can answer. What I’ll contribute, though, are some things that should factor into that decision.

It should be conscious

Being conscious of why we’re doing what we’re doing is a huge first step. Think about your goals. Don’t say yes to say yes or because you feel like you want something to be able to talk about in job interviews. Opportunities are abundant, so finding the ones that make the most sense based on your goals is a very high leverage thing to do. Don’t start a student group at school because you want to bring together people interested in sports. Instead decide what you want out of bringing these people together. Is it meeting more people that are interested in sports for your own benefit? If so, why not just reach out to people individually and not waste time on events that might not even make sense to have.

Maybe you want other people to connect with each other that are interested in sports? Still, it would make more sense to just get a list of those people and set them up with a random pairing each week for a conversation.

Thinking about our activities in terms of impact, time and leverage can be extremely powerful.

The returns to scale are decreasing

Understanding this is important as we decide how involved to get in a variety of different things. If we really care about one of our commitments, then any additional thing we add on will inevitably be taking away focus from what we love.

Don’t be afraid to say no or change your mind

This is where I struggle a lot. I feel a constant obligation to appease other people and to help where I can. Especially if I had said I would previously. But people understand. Think about the times that someone has said they changed their mind or that they can’t be involved or help out. It can be sad or frustrating, but often we respect that person for being up front, honest and standing by what they really feel. Plus, there are other people to step up, and if there aren’t, it’s almost never worth sacrificing your own well being to help something arbitrary that is often not that important. (Sometimes it is, and in those cases it can be trickier, but most of the time we think it’s more important than it really is).

We are also constantly changing our priorities. We might not be thinking about the right questions and suddenly do so and realize we want to drop out of things we’re involved in. There’s a balance based on staying true to our commitments, but often we can change how involved we are (or ease our way out, at the least).

All in all, doing more is still good

Despite being over involved, I have learned a lot about myself by pushing to my limits. I have realized what I like and don’t like as well as what I think I can handle. I’ve met awesome people and explored passions.

It’s just a constant balance and adjustment that takes thoughtfulness and strength.

It can be hard at times, but don’t give up and don’t get down on yourself. Just enjoy and appreciate :)

Thanks for reading! Have thoughts or want to talk? Send me an email at noadelstein@gmail.com

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