• Eve Arnold

If You Want to Be Productive You Need to Know When to Quit

Quit. What a bad word.

There is this theory rocking around that every single day you need to produce as much as you physically can. In order to maximise your chances of success, the first thing you need to do is produce an output. Then you need to produce as much as physically possible.

Now you output can be absolutely anything and of course, it will depend on your field but mainly the idea is that you need to create a lot in order to be considered productive and play with the big dogs.

Productivity is the game and if you are not productive you will get left behind. However, productivity with a complete disregard for quality seems no way to actually move forward. Or is it?

Consider that maybe, the way to be propelled forward is to use both quantity and quality to your advantage.

Quantity over quality — In the beginning quantity wins

Now, depending on what field you are in will depend on your output. If you are in sales it’ll mean more sales calls, if you are a writer it’ll mean more words on the page and if you are a coder it’ll mean more lines of code.

Either way, the main output here, is quantity.

Yet, you know that producing more of the same rubbish won’t make you better, in fact, over a period of time, it’ll make you worse. Now, sure there is a lot to be gained from an efficiency perspective from doing something over and over. Take writing an article for example.

“After 2 hours you decide that today’s work is done and you stare into the page before you and realise you’ve only written 450 words, not enough to publish”

The first time it’s clunky. You don’t know where to start, you start writing the intro and realise you’re not entirely sure what you’re writing about so instead switch to the main body of the text. You write down everything that comes to mind and that amounts to 3 sentences in total. Not enough. Hmm. So you go to the internet.

You find a few articles to inspire your thought and carry on writing, for a little while at least. After 2 hours you decide that today’s work is done and you stare into the page before you and realise you’ve only written 450 words, not enough to publish. But you’re new, you probably don’t realise that this isn’t a sufficient amount for an article. So you publish anyway.

You might get a single clap. But hey, this is your first piece. 1 clap is pretty good, right? So you continue the same method.

2 hours.

450 words.

Publish.

Now only on reflection (and reflection meaning months later) do you realise that this isn’t a winning combination. Whilst you might be writing something, you know (at least now) that words on a page don’t make an article. You realise that good articles are formatted correctly, they are conscious to include a lot of white space and annoyingly you realise that a lot of the success of an article dependent on the title.

But you don’t learn things from writing 400 articles of 450 words for 2 hours a day.

You learn this from outside of the actual writing. You learn from watching. Not doing.

When to switch from quantity to quality

Now, when you start anything new, the reality is that your focus isn’t to create award-winning work. Your focus is, instead, to create a habit. You know how difficult it is to stick to a habit. Remember that time you tried running at 5 am every morning. How long did that last?

Morning one — tick.

Morning two — half a tick.

Morning three — “oh it’s not working anyway and my bed is much more appealing.”

In the beginning, there is a strong argument for purely focusing on getting in the chair, putting your running trainers on or ringing 8 people a day. The aim here is to get you in the swing of things. You should be concentrating on maximising output, you want to do something enough times to make it a habit.

Something that you just do without thinking.

Something that it would now feel weird to not do as if you were missing something.

That’s the sole aim of quantity. I did this with writing. I would get up every morning (correction, most mornings) from May — July and write. I would write about anything and everything that came to mind. No process. Just wake up, write. I had no thoughts the night before about what I might write about the following morning. Literally every morning I would face a completely blank page.

The sole goal was to fill it.

Some days I would hop and skip to work (mentally, work was 15 miles away, imagine how exhausting that would be) in admiration of how productive my morning was. I was chuffed. I would get to work thinking:

“I’ve been so productive today, up at 5am, article published by 7.30am, I’m on top form.”

The reality was though, the content I was producing was complete rubbish. However, at that point, it didn’t matter. I was just (in retrospect) focusing on getting content out.

However, there does come to a point where the habit is embedded and it time to move from 2nd gear into 3rd and 4th. In order to do that, it takes a different kind of discipline.

The one where you shift the focus from quantity to quality. It’s quite a hard shift to stomach.

All of a sudden you go from an article a day in 2.5 hours to an article every other day which takes a total of 5 hours. It’s double the effort for the same output. Which fools you into thinking you are taking a backwards step.

You’re not.

You need to learn to stick with the shift. You need to keep telling yourself that Malcolm Gladwell, Elon Musk and Dan Brown don’t get buy with producing rubbish on a gigantic scale. No, they get by (and do better than just getting by) with the quality they produce. If you want to be like them you must produce very consistent, high-quality output. Which is, admittedly, a tall order.

But whether you are using quality and quantity to your advantage or not, one thing is for certain, you won’t maximise productivity if you don’t know when to quit.

Whether it’s quantity or quality this is why you get worse over time

In the 1870s, a chap called William Jevons became unusually perplexed by this idea utility or value. But before all that you need to know where the idea of utility came from and more to the point, what the Earth utility means.

For the longest time, this idea of value has been a challenge to overcome. How would you intend to put a price on a shoe for example? Is a shoe more valuable to you if you need a new pair or should it sit at the same ‘price’ always? Well, the early economic thought came from Aristotle who believed that value was based on need:

“Of everything which we possess, there are two uses; For example a shoe is used for wear and it is used for exchange”

Between the 16th and 17th century there began a shift in thinking. There was the move away from this idea of value being derived from need and more towards this idea that value should be attributed to the effort that goes into the item. For example, a pair of shoes might be worth more than a flower.

The utility is about satisfaction or usefulness — a measure of happiness if you will. Specifically, it’s about how much satisfaction you receive from using a product or a service. That, of course, will increase or decrease the demand. You might get higher utility from something if you want it more.

The more you have, the less you get from it or the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility – quit it

What we do know though is that 1 pair of shoes is useful, 2 are handy, 3 well 3 are good also. But by the 21st pair of shoes you’re getting a little bit bored of shoes now (I know 21st-century problems). By the 21st pair you’re thinking:

“well my 1st pair are great, I really needed them, 2 and 3 are good too for different occasions but 21 pairs? Well, I can’t wear 21 pairs all at once, I really don’t need anymore shoes.”

The point here is that the first few pairs provide a huge amount of value. Shoes on your feet are important. But by the end, you’ve got too many to know what to do with and your satisfaction per pair of shoe decreases.

And that’s the same with your input. Hour 1–3 could be very lucrative but by hour 21 are you still getting the same level of utility?

When to quit (for the day at least)

Quitting and giving up are two completely different things. Giving up conjures up this idea of not being able to continue and as such you put down tools. It’s the idea that you can do no more because you have exhausted the effort you are capable of expelling for that day or because you simply cannot be bothered.

Quitting is better than that. Quitting is strategic in nature and not actioned through emotion or tiredness. Quitting today will lead to an overall advantage tomorrow.

Taking forward the learnings from the Diminishing Law of Marginal Utility it makes sense to quit. It makes to quit when you are sure that the effort expended is not worth the output received. For example, if you are a writer, you may find that your most productive time is from 6 am — 11 am. After that time it seems pointless to carry on because you’re writing quality falls off a cliff.

From 6 am — 7 am you are on fire, writing at 200 words a minute with the ideas just flowing out of you like magic. Then the next hour the words come out even faster. Like every beat of your heart, your words come out strong and consistent. The next hour is very much the same.

Beat.

Word.

Beat.

Word.

And by 10 am you feel yourself come up for air and you’re a little disorientated… what just happened? You can see you’ve got roughly 2000 words down so you know it must have been a good few hours.

You read through, you smile. It was good indeed.

But then you begin to slow down. The words aren’t coming out as seamlessly or flowing in the way you were before. But that’s okay. By 11 am you are completely done. The river of words has slowed now to more like a dip.

This is the point where you should quit. This is the point where it’s evident that sitting in the chair for any longer would start to have a negative impact. Slowly but surely you’ll find yourself dancing around the internet, making excuses to get coffee and going to the toilet for the 6th time in the row.

Now is the time to quit.

In conclusion: How quitting makes you more productive in the long run

Rest isn’t for the wicked. Sleeping isn’t for when you are dead. You should, in fact, sleep when you need it. You should take breaks. You should realise when your marginal utility is diminishing to a point that is not worth it. At that point, you need to shift gears in order to be more productive.

Sitting in the chair after 3 hours when the last 30 minutes has been completely unproductive is likely to lead to more hours of unproductivity.

It’s time to quit for the day.

Knowing when the utility is diminishing and you are becoming unproductive is a skill but of course, there are things you can look out for:

  1. Focus shifting — are you starting to think about that coffee?

  2. Procrastination — are you start to go on the internet to look at things unrelated to this thing?

  3. Attention dropping — have you just read over that sentence 5 times and still not sure what it says?

If that’s the case, quit and come back to it. You’ll be more productive that way.

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