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The Asymptote Effect

Invoking it may improve productivity while reducing procrastination and worry.

Key points

  • The value of thinking about a problem often starts diminishing after a short amount of time.
  • Aiming to make the most of each second, absurd and difficult on its face, may be possible, and boost productivity and feeling life is well-led.
  • You might remind yourself that you have significant agency in your life.
Steve DiMatteo, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Steve DiMatteo, Pixabay, Public Domain

One of the key concepts of calculus is the asymptote — the point of diminishing returns.

That applies to how we spend our time. My clients and I have found that we often quickly reach the asymptote: the point after which additional thinking yields ever less benefit.

With a client today, and with many clients in the past, I illustrated the asymptote effect with a little experiment: The client was overwhelmed at his job because it has many moving parts, human and technical, with a number of unanswered questions. He had felt inert for weeks. He procrastinated, wondering if he should change jobs. He lived anxiously.

I said, “Let’s try a no-risk experiment. I’ll set a timer for five minutes. Use these erasable black and red pens to make a diagram that lays out the problem as well as you can. It’s just an experiment, so if the diagram is useless, you can toss it."

At the five-minute mark, he felt he hadn’t quite reached his asymptote, his point of diminishing returns. "I just need another minute.” Of course, I said, 'Great."

He found the time-delimited exercise helpful. He will revise it a bit and show the resulting draft to his boss.

Having only five minutes motivated him to write the things that were top of mind, which often are central, and to filter out what clearly isn't important. He wouldn't have a polished product in five minutes but had a good start. And labeling the project as a no-risk experiment freed him from worry that the diagram won’t be useful enough. Symbolically, using erasable pens may have helped a bit more.

We then moved to a broader, bolder corollary — that life may feel more meaningful if we try to make the most of each second—yes, second. He then asked, “But how do I motivate myself to stay so focused when I start to default to my usual behavior, which is to be lazy, especially when I screw up. I somehow use that to rationalize continuing to be lazy."

I asked him what a wiser twin of his might say in response. He said, “My twin would say that, like a dieter who cheated or an alcoholic who took a drink, that’s not an excuse to screw up more. Rather, learning from it makes it easier each time, especially if you take a baby step forward. My mantra is going to be, "Every bit helps.”

The session's capstone was his saying, "I am motivated by the idea of having more agency, being the emperor of my life."

Our session ended with his agreeing that those four takeaways held potential for him:

  1. Trying low-risk, time-delimited experiments. Those capitalize on the asymptote effect: the often quickly diminishing return on time invested.
  2. Trying to make the most of each second, while perhaps absurd on its face, may be key to a life well-led and even help alleviate procrastination and sadness.
  3. Slip-ups, instead of a rationale for staying off the wagon, are likely to make continued improvement more likely.
  4. We can be the emperor of our life.

I read this aloud on YouTube.