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Stop Spreading Yourself So Thin

February 17th, 2020 · 2 min read

We have a tendency to stretch ourselves thin with endless commitments in today’s hyper connected and stimulating world. Both in our personal and professional lives.

We use resources to accomplish these commitments — most notably time and energy. Unfortunately, these resources are limited. And we never have enough.

Below I will attempt to explain why I think we always end up being stretched thin, and what you can do to change this.

It will evolve around the following equation:

Emotion/quality/results ~= commitments - resources

When commitments > resources, we’re stressed, produce low quality output, and achieve bad results. When resources > commitments, we’re happy, produce high quality output, and good results.

So this is easy, right? Just make resources greater than commitments.

Let’s wake up earlier. Let’s hire more people. Let’s drink 3 cups of coffee each day.

In theory, this seems like it’s gonna help. However, in practice I find that it leads to two unintended negative consequences.

First, as soon as we get more resources, we immediately fill up that extra capacity with more commitments (aka Parkinson’s Law). This leads us right back to where we started. Overextended. Tired. Producing low quality stuff. Getting bad results.

Second, we underestimate the longer term trade offs of these actions:

  1. Waking up 2 hours early gets us 2 more hours. But it also makes us more exhausted throughout the day. Especially if we repeatedly reduce our sleep quantity.
  2. Hiring more people adds more capacity. However, it also adds more communication complexity.
  3. Drinking coffee gives you superpowers for a couple hours. But over time you build tolerance. And then you drink so much that it starts making you jittery. Now you have trouble falling asleep, and need coffee just to keep your eyes open.

I’m not arguing that waking up early, hiring people, or drinking coffee are definitively bad.

However, I am suggesting that we too often go with the easy and relatively short-sighted path of trying to optimize near term resources.

So, what should we do instead?

I think we should focus more on reducing commitments. This can be hard. And uncomfortable. However, I think it will be a much more sustainable solution and do a better job of optimizing happiness, quality, and outcomes in the long run.

So next time somebody (including yourself) suggests that the best solution is to wake up earlier, hire more people, or drink more coffee, remember that there are two sides to the equation.

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