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Law of Diminishing Returns

The other night, Emery put some chicken in water to turn into chicken broth.  After simmering them for several hours, I removed the chickens.  When they had cooled sufficiently, I started picking the chicken off the bones.  As you can imagine, this is a rather brainless task, so my mind started to wander.

I had all sorts of thoughts and eventually I started thinking about the Law of Diminishing Returns. This is an economic principle that I learned years ago and that I apply to my life all the time.

Dictionary.com defines ‘diminishing returns’ as the following:

1. any rate of profit, production, benefits, etc., that beyond a certain point fails to increase proportionately with added investment, effort, or skill.

2. Also called law of diminishing returns. Economics. the fact, often stated as a law or principle, that when any factor of production, as labor, is increased while other factors, as capital and land, are held constant in amount, the output per unit of the variable factor will eventually diminish.

So, to use my “chicken picking” example, assuming I hold everything constant (the speed at which I pick, my concentration, etc.), as I continue to pick the chicken off the bones, I will get less meat.

If you’ve ever made chicken soup from a whole chicken, and you’re like me, the first thing you pick off is the chicken breast.  You get a huge chunk of meat with very little effort.  Then I usually go for the thighs, then the legs, and then the wings.

With every subsequent minute of effort, I get less and less chicken.  Eventually I’m left picking smaller pieces off of different parts of the carcass.  And eventually I quit.


Because it’s not worth any more of my time.

But there’s still some edible chicken left on the bones.

True.  But it takes me more and more time to get to the edible chicken and eventually it just isn’t worth it.  It’s no longer efficient.

For all of those vegetarians or vegans out there reading this post, I’m sorry for the example.  But my brain works when I’m doing my normal tasks and I spend a lot of time making chicken broth and picking chicken from the bones.

But the reason I bring all of this up is because the Law of Diminishing Returns applies to so many areas of our lives and if you become aware of it, my hope is that you can become more efficient at whatever it is you’re doing.  Let’s consider the following scenarios.

Cleaning Your Home.  If you walk into a dirty house, you can spend the first hour, picking up and putting everything away.  The changes in that first hour can be dramatic.  After that you may wipe down counters and floors and it looks cleaner still.  Eventually, you’re going to get to the point where you’re washing windows and cleaning baseboards.  Do you know what?  Most people probably aren’t even going to notice.  Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever wash your windows or clean your baseboards.  But for me, I’m satisfied if I wipe them down once (maybe twice) a year.  More than that and my returns are definitely diminished.

Laundry.  Many people (including my family) wear mostly the same clothes over and over. The first hour spent doing laundry washes these clothes and produces clean clothes to wear.  The second hour may produce clean towels.  The third… clean sheets.  But if you keep going, you get down to washing curtains and throw rugs.  Do washing those items really improve your life?  If you have asthma or allergies, the answer may be a definite yes.  But for most of us, those would be diminishing returns.

Cooking. Fortunately for me, my family loves my cooking.  But I’m far from a gourmet chef.  If I want to try a new recipe, I may look up a recipe to get a basic idea of how it goes.  But do you know what I often find?  Most recipes have way too many ingredients.  I don’t have time for that.  I never use all the spices they recommend.  I usually get by with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  While adding all sorts of other seasonings may make the flavor more nuanced (and even better), I don’t have the time to stock all those ingredients and measure them all.  I get the bulk of my returns with just the basic three.  I can buy those in bulk and save money. The return on too many other spices diminishes.

Internet and Social Media.  I rarely use social media.  But if I do, it is to take a quick check on what is going on in the world and what is going on with the people closest to me that I don’t often see.  I can usually get that in 10-15 minutes.  I don’t need to spend hours on there.  With every subsequent 15 minutes I spend on the internet or social media, I get less and less return.

Exercise.  I have no desire to run triathlons or compete in body building.  What I do want is to maintain a healthy fitness level and a healthy weight.  I can do this in a minimal amount of time, especially if I’m consistent.  For example, as I’m writing this blog post, I’m walking on my treadmill desk and burning calories.  I even have a light sweat going just walking at 2.5 mph at a 4.5% incline.  Depending on your level of fitness, there comes a time when you exercise too much and either injure yourself or don’t add anything else to your fitness level.

Entertainment.  Watching a movie with your family can be a great way to spend some down-time and have something you can talk about later.  But spending twelve hours on a movie marathon is probably excessive and does’t provide as much joy as that first ninety minutes provided.  Especially if you’re like me and watching too much television gives you a headache!

Customer Service.  I try to provide my customers with the best customer service I can.  But I have found that I do a better job overall if I’m not checking emails every five minutes.  If I’m checking for customer emails every five minutes, it’s hard to be productive in other areas.  But if I check emails, and then write an informational article and then check emails again, I’ve provided better overall customer service.  There are definitely diminishing returns if all I do is wait for emails to come in.

Disciplining Children.  I see too many parents who over-discipline their children.  What I mean by this is they keep repeating the same discipline over and over until their children completely tune them out.  If your child misbehaves, I have found that looking them in the eyes, delivering a meaningful (but short) disciplinary action and then moving on works much better than sitting your child down for a half hour discussion on the various reasons they need to be disciplined.  Your biggest impact as a disciplinarian is often those first few minutes when the child feels the weight of what they did wrong.  Make that as impactful as possible and then move on.

Those are just a few areas that came to mind that I hope are more useful than my ‘picking chicken’ example!

Bottom line, there comes a point when it is best to stop what you are doing or working on because your returns are diminishing.  Move on to something else.  You’ll find yourself more productive and happier for it.

So what about you?  Do you find yourself stuck working on something even when you know you aren’t getting as much out of it as when you first started?





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