Repetition vs. Pushing Hard

There is an economic theory called ‘law of diminishing marginal returns’.

In the real world, there are often physical limitations for things.
For a factory creating Pikachu toys, the supply of plastic is limited.
If the factory starts with a single machine, it can produce the toys at peak performance, since there are no limitations.
If the factory adds more machines to create new Pikachu toys, each machine will convert more of the plastic.
Since more plastic is being consumed, returns are increasing now with each new machine.

After a while though, the plastic supply will start to constrain the amount of toys the factory can produce.
Now each new machine employed is producing less toys, but is consuming the same amount of electricity.
That means that every subsequent toy being generated will be costing more than the first few.
At some point, employing any additional machines will just add to the cost, and will not generate any new toys.
This would eventually lead to negative returns.

As humans, this theory tends to apply to our body too.
The body has limited capacity, and performance of the body changes as we demand more from it.
Writing the first sentence of the day is easy, it starts and the brain is ready with more options.
It requires very little effort to write the first sentence.
But every sentence after that is harder, and requires more concentration by the brain.
The brain is consuming energy and converting it to words.
At some point, the energy consumption adds up to the point where the brain starts to crave more food.
With the brain now energy constrained, the quantity and quality of each subsequent sentence is being limited.

Same with running.
The first step is easy.
The second one is a tiny bit harder.
There comes a time when running becomes impossible.
Though, all you’re doing is the same step over and over again.

This doesn’t even apply to things that require effort.
Binge watching a show would also follow the same rule.
Watching episode 89 of the same show requires significantly more effort than watching episode 5.
Same for food, eating the 10th hotdog is harder than the first.

The law of diminishing returns is a really valuable framework to remember in life and achieving things sustainably.
It’s useful to remember that at times pushing harder will not get the return we want.
It only hurts more and produces less value.

However, when we read about achieving things, we seldom hear about this law.
People think that working hard is infinitely productive.
That, for becoming successful at anything, we just need to burn the candle at both ends.

A really common theme in some Anime and Manga genres is that the protagonist will continue improving at a fast pace.
They show a training montage and the protagonist finishes it both relaxed and significantly more powerful than before.
It is cool to see that, but it gives off the wrong message.
The message is that continuing to increase effort will give off the same or exponentially more reward.

We all buy that narrative though, why?
If we wouldn’t, the Manga authors will stop using this popular story element.
Nobody thinks that it’s odd or unreasonable. Why?
As with most things that our brains intuitively believe in, there’s a kernel of truth to it.
The kernel in this case is the statement: “Hard work yields better outcomes”. Strictly speaking, I believe that statement to be true.
But not in the training montage, staying up for three days to meet a deadline ways.

If you run a hundred kilometers, you will probably get injured.
However, running five kilometers every day consistently for a year? That makes us capable of running farther and faster than we were able to on the first day.

If an engineer spends three days without sleep on a codebase, trying to understand it, they’ll probably not figure it out.
However, systematically learning about different parts of the codebase every day for a few hours? The returns on that investment would be striking.

This is what I mean when I say ‘pushing’ vs. ‘repetition’.
Pushing hard is when we as humans will continue to perform an activity without taking adequate breaks.
The law of diminishing returns starts to apply there.
Things get harder, you get tired, your brain or body functions less optimally and overall you’re bound to hit a wall.
The results are either negative (muscle injuries), or negligible (try understand a single line of code after not sleeping for a day).

With repetitions and adequate breaks, the situation is different.
Running daily tells your body that you need a better muscular system, better lungs, and more efficient heart to continue running.
The rest every day allows the body to have time to respond to those demands, to build muscles and develop organs.
Writing something daily allows your brain to build better connections that help you choose better words and sentence structures. It allows to generate better, more cohesive ideas after each good night’s sleep.

At some point, working hard won’t help.
Working smarter would be to take enough breaks to help your body energized and ready for the challenge.
Don’t push it when all you need is a better habit.
We’ve all been in situations where the deadline is looming and we pull and all-nighter to finish the work.
How often has that work been of good quality?
Imagine how much better would be the submission if you had worked on it daily for a week.
How polished, and how well thought through.
The time would effectively be the same, but because we’re not being afflicted with the law of diminishing marginal returns, we will perform much better.