On Doing Less: When Less is More

I hold both a Bachelors and a Masters degree in the social sciences. I studied history, politics, law, philosophy, and even took those pesky data analysis courses that numb your brain in no time flat. However, over the course of two degrees, I never once took a class in economics. This is somewhat of a point of pride for me, in that I managed to escape a topic that I thoroughly despise…but I digress.

Despite my lack of formal education on the topic, I’ve recently seen a couple of economics principles at play in my life. They are closely related, but different, and offer great wisdom for finding balance in life.


The Law of Diminishing Returns: This is a law about work efficiency. Generally applied toward production processes, this law states that, all other things being equal, increasing the amount of one element of the process (workers, hours, machines, etc), decreases the return you get from each unit.

Let’s say you have 10 workers in your factory, each putting out a nice round work unit of 1. If you increased your factory to 20 workers, and didn’t change anything else, each of those workers would then be putting out a work unit of ½. You added more workers, but your input became less efficient and you received less return for the work.

The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. This is a law about pleasure from consumption. This law states that the more a person consumes an item, without changing the levels of consumption of other items, the less pleasure that person gets from using that original item.

This is the classic “I ate too much” scenario: You’re out to dinner and you’ve eaten your salad, your steak, and even your baked potato, and you believe you still have room left for dessert. When that chocolate lava cake comes, the first few bites are soooooo gooooooood, but as you eat more and realize how full you are, you reach the point where it doesn’t taste quite as delicious. Each bite gives you less and less pleasure from consuming it. In fact, you can even reach the point where you get negative utility from continuing to eat. This usually results in a sad tummy for the rest of the night.

There's a rumbly in my tumbly!  Don't let it get to this point.
There’s a rumbly in my tumbly! Don’t let it get to this point.


The key takeaway from both of these economic principles is that there are some instances in life when less truly is more. It’s better to do less, or to have less, in order to maintain the most value and pleasure from an activity. I’ve seen this at play in my life in a couple significant areas recently.


Fitness. So that thing called a “rest day?” It’s actually a good idea! No doubt, when it comes to fitness, you have to put in work to make gains. Lots of work. Hard work. Sweaty work. But there comes a point when doing more work doesn’t pay off at the same rate it used to.

Beyond the Whiteboard recently did an interesting analysis on whether working out more was worth it. What they found was, yes, you will improve more quickly if you go to the gym more days per week. However, the rate at which you improve does not match the additional time investment required per week. Additionally, the return you get from that 6th day straight at the gym probably won’t be very big if you’re too tired or sore to leave your maximum effort out on the floor that day.

Diminishing returns, indeed!

Competitive Shooting. When I first started shooting 3-gun, there were maybe six major matches a year, period. If you made it to three or four of them, you had a “busy” season. That’s no longer the case. In fact, between late January and mid-November (yes, that’s only about a 6-week off-season), the number of weekends that a major match is NOT available likely numbers in the single digits. These days, if a shooter had unlimited days off work and an unlimited budget, they could easily shoot 25 major matches in one season.

In 2012, I shot a whopping 4 major matches and had the time of my life! In 2013, I shot 10 major matches and did 6 Crossfit competitions. In 2014, the number of shooting competitions was similar, although I scaled back significantly on the Crossfit competitions. And let’s not forget the tradeshows, local matches, and practice days.

What I found was that over the course of the two seasons in which I shot more, I enjoyed it a whole lot less each time. Rather than looking forward to a fun weekend away with my friends, I dreaded packing, traveling, and catching up at work from my days off. It got so bad at one point that I simply didn’t show up for a major match that I had already paid for.

Talk about diminishing utility.


I’m trying to take a different approach to this year – that is, seeking to find balance.

Rather than packing my schedule with as many matches as my budget and work schedule can possibly handle, I’m going to limit it to one match and one practice day per calendar month. That means two weekends per month at home that I can sleep in my own bed and hang out with my friends and family. That also means (I hope!) that I’ll enjoy the events I do attend even more.

In the gym, I intend to continue working hard. I’ve increased my workout time significantly in the last 6 months and I’ve definitely seen big gains. But I’m not gonna push it. For one, nobody has time for an injury. But also, I don’t want to reach the point with Crossfit where I’ve been with shooting. Four or 5 days a week is plenty for me, thankyouverymuch.

Because sometimes a little less really is a whole lot more.

Remember -- this is supposed to be fun! (Ericka Andersen photo)
Remember — this is supposed to be fun!
(Ericka Andersen photo)

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