Avoiding the Trap of Linear Thinking
To avoid giving up or burning out we should think asymptotically.
You probably don’t want maximum effectiveness. The most effective way to make money likely requires a lifestyle you don’t want to live.
Instead, you want the most effective path that fits your desired lifestyle. How do you want to spend your days? Start there, then optimize.
Humans are exceptional linear thinkers, but life doesn’t operate linearly.
We think the more effort we put into something the more we’ll get out of it. In some cases this is true, but in most of the worthwhile pursuits we care about, the relationship between our inputs and the outputs is far from proportional.
In most cases, the more progress we make, the more effort is required to continue improving. It’s like hiking up a mountain that gets steeper and steeper the closer we get to the top.
Calculus teaches us about asymptotic lines: lines that approach a limit but never intersect it.
This is a wonderful alternative to linear thinking and a perfect analogy for our efforts to become a bit better each day.
Consider the example below. The line gets closer and closer to touching the upper limit of 15 but even if we extend the horizontal axis to infinity, the lines will never touch. With each unit that the line moves to the right the distance it travels upwards gets smaller.
This is how the relationship between effort and progress works in most pursuits. The horizontal axis represents effort and the vertical axis represents our progress.
When we begin something new we can make incredible progress with little effort, but as we improve, it requires more and more work to make the same amount of progress.
In the beginning, our efforts are highly leveraged. One unit of effort gets us multiple units of progress. Eventually, the relationship between inputs and outputs reaches an inflection point where effort and progress are proportional. (For our purposes today, let’s call this point of Proportional Progress). Beyond this point, every unit of effort we invest returns less than one unit of progress.
Linear thinking assumes we are always at the point of Proportional Progress, but in most areas of life, the relationship between effort and progress is asymptotic. If we continue to think linearly we’ll end up at one of two extremes: giving up or burning out.
More often than not, pursuits will require significantly more effort than we planned for after the inital honeymoon period and we’ll give up before we reach any meaningful progress. Or we’ll muscle our way past the point of Proportional Progress and burn ourselves out by working unbelievably hard trying to chase the easy progress we had in the early days.
Thinking asymptotically gives us a distinct advantage in making progress on individual pursuits and balancing our efforts across multiple areas of life.
When we have accurate expectations of what’s required for certain levels of performance or progress we’re able to plan our efforts properly. When things become increasingly difficult we won’t be discouraged, we’ll be prepared for it. And once we reach high levels of performance we can make informed decisions on the additional work required for continued progress.
It shows us that with a little effort and determination, we can progress farther than we thought, but true mastery requires far more work than we would have estimated on our own.
Some things are worth pushing past the point of Proportional Progress and doing the difficult work to make incremental improvements. Others are not.
Understanding the difference means we can allocate our time and energy effectively so the most important things get the energy and effort required to move them forward.
It’s easy to default to the extremes of maximizing progress or neglecting to try something at all, but thinking about our pursuits through the lens of an asymptotic curve gives us a third option.
It allows us to optimize for the right relationship of effort and outcomes in each area of our lives so we can achieve what’s important to us and moderate our lifestyle at the same time.
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What is one pursuit that you’ve fallen victim to underinvesting in? One that you’ve overinvested in?
Given what’s required for true mastery what pursuits in your life are worth the continued effort?
What is something new you can invest time into and quickly get results?
A classic read from Marshal Goldsmith about continuing to adapt and learn to succeed past the point of asymptotic inflection.
Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next Sunday.