Diminishing Returns to Work

“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.


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

The perceived available opportunities increases with time

I believe this for two reasons.

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.

A sense of obligation

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

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 continue doing them and either

What are your goals?

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

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.

So what do you do?

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

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.

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).

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.



Denver Native | WUSTL ’18 Econ | SF

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