work smarter: the law of diminishing returns

Work Smarter, Not Harder

My mantra throughout grad school has been "Work smarter, not harder." There is no reason to spend more energy than necessary to complete a task, especially if you're balancing grad school with work. Over the next couple of months, I want to go more in depth on some of the tactics I use to work smart. 

First up: The Law of Diminishing Returns.

Economics majors know this one all too well. The law of diminishing returns states that "in all productive processes, adding one more factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower incremental per-unit returns." In other words, there is a point where adding more to a system will result in lowered productivity. If this holds for businesses, could it possibly hold for people outside of work and in their daily lives?


I've been following this line of thinking for years. There is a point where I cannot add any more to my plate or push myself to do any more without decreasing my overall productivity.


For me, time is a big factor in when I start having diminishing returns, either time of day or the amount of time that I have. I'm an early bird by nature. I do my best thinking between 8am and 10am, usually with cold brewed coffee in hand. It's very difficult for me to stay awake past 11pm. I've learned that after a certain time my efforts to ________ (insert focused task here) will be futile. Whether it be writing a paper, taking book notes, or even reading for pleasure, after a certain time of day I will waste more effort trying to focus than I will actually getting the task done. When it comes to having enough time, I find that I work best on one large task than by stuffing as many small tasks as possible into the same amount of time. Knowing this helps me immensly with my time management.

So, how do you figure out your personal law of diminishing returns? I've developed mine through years and years of analyzing my best and worst work. Because I'm a crazy list-maker and note-taker who takes years to get rid of these logs, I am able to find trends in my day plans and compare those trends against grades. But not everyone has to take such a crazy route. Just pay attention to your mental capacity and your focus levels. If you find yourself having to re-read the same sentance over and over, you've probably lost focus. What led up to this loss of focus? Pay attention to yourself, your surroundings, and your output levels.

Once you figure out where your law of diminishing returns is, you can use that to help you work smarter. For example, I…

  • Schedule focus-intensive tasks earlier in the day (when I can). At work, I do research and data analysis first thing in the morning. With school, I try to write or read earlier during the weekend.
  • Know when to stop. 10pm is my limit for school. I very, very rarely will look at anything for school after this time because I know I'll be pretty useless.
  • Don't apologize. Seriously, don't apologize to someone when you know you shouldn't start a new task at 5pm and you've been at work since 7am. You know you best, and if the task can wait until the morning, let it wait.

Knowing where you hit diminishing returns is an important step in learning to work smarter. Don't expend more energy than needed on a task. Learn where you work best and make it work for you.

2 thoughts on “work smarter: the law of diminishing returns

  1. I am an 84 senior drifting online trying to find miscellaneous interesting people and subjects. Your site grabbed me today as a young person who seemingly is all together in her goal in life. Not many are there in a life and I should know. Keep your interest in life as it sure grabs you all the way!


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