The razor’s edge of diminishing returns

When it’s time to get to work, it’s time to get to work. And whether you’re plowing through Grand Central Station to make your connection or aggressively lane-switching on the 405, if there’s one activity that justifies hurry it’s commuting.

The author Derek Sivers applied this mindset to his daily biking commute along the Los Angeles coastline. He’d start in Santa Monica with a “full-on, 100 percent, head-down, red-faced” sprint for 7.5 miles towards Playa del Rey.

The result? 43 minutes. Every time. Like clockwork. (“Maybe a minute more on a really windy day.”)

But his enthusiasm for the ride started to wane. Sivers found himself mentally exhausted. So he mixed things up.

Sivers decided to do something he’s not used to. He gave it 50% effort.

He’d do the same ride, “but just chill.”

So along the way he admired the palm trees. He saw two dolphins.

(A pelican even pooped in his mouth; Sivers “had to laugh at the novelty of it.”)

He arrived, relaxed, smiling and rejuvenated. And then looked at his watch.

45 minutes.

It turned out that his intense sprints only saved him 4% of his commuting time. Said differently, by straight up chilling Sivers still achieved 96% of the desired result. He’d landed on the law of diminishing returns.

As Sivers crossed the inflection point of effort, he had a powerful revelation: half of his effort was just unnecessary stress that made him feel like he was doing his best.


Our daily lives are constantly brushing up against these two inflection points. And like Sivers, we often are blind to the mental tax of these diminishing returns.

Is Inbox 17, really that much worse than Inbox Zero?

Do all the columns in Excel really need to be exactly the same width?

Does the Zoom meeting really benefit from adding 8 more participants?

Is Crossfit really worth it? (Said from a place of love, as a former diehard.)

Identifying those inflection points saves us from sprialing into $10/hr work wormhole. In Siver’s case it revealed some powerful, yet hidden truths:

  • Feeling rushed is counter-productive
  • Ease can overcome struggle
  • It’s ok to get subsumed by the beauty of the present

And as Sivers concludes, we can relax for the same result.

Learn more about the diminishing returns at the $10k Institute and HT to David Perrel for sharing the Sivers story.

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