Essay

More is More, Until More is Less

By Duff McDuffee on May 15th, 2012

A huge number of personal development books and blogs are dedicated to the principle of leverage, also known as efficiency, the 80/20 rule, productivity, etc. But the thing is, many people use a “less is more” strategy far too early in the game.

In this great article “Is less really more?” I found via @andyfossett on Twitter, movement, strength, and conditioning coach Clifton Harski challenges the notion in exercise that less is always more.

He brings up three main points:

1. Efficiency for its own sake is often boring, and fun activities are often inefficient precisely because you are doing them for their own sake, not for some outcome.

2. As Harski puts it, “80% is a B-. Those 20% that people ignore, take you from ‘ok’ to ‘good’. They are not unimportant.” In other words, you can squeak by with a highly efficient program, but won’t get to good or excellent by simply being ruthlessly efficient.

3. “Less is more” recommendations originate from people already doing more–in particular, lots and lots more than you are likely to be doing unless you are at the professional level in that area.

We can think of this not just in terms of fitness programs but much more generally using the “law of diminishing returns.”

We can summarize this principle as this:

First more is more, until more is less. When more is less, then less is more. That’s the rule, more or less.

First More is More

If you are doing almost nothing, then first you need to get in the game. This is true whether the area is fitness, nutrition, business, learning in a particular field, etc. In all fields, newbies make rapid progress because in systems, more is more at first.

      Newcomers to strength training make linear gains, putting up more weight every week if not every session.
      People who go on diets to lose weight find that the first few pounds are the easiest to lose (and the last 10 to 15 the hardest).
      More marketing for a business that has never done marketing leads to more customers, often in a linear dollars to customers kind of way.
      Someone getting organized and “productive” for the first time can easily become 2-3x more productive just by making a to-do list or working on a Pomodoro schedule.

But inevitably, the law of diminishing returns sets in.

…Until More is Less

Then what happens is that for the same extra effort, fewer results come.

      Strength gains were going up by 5lbs on each lift per session, then 5lbs per week, now nothing for weeks.
      The first 30 pounds melted away, now you’re always hungry and you’re losing weight only at a rate of 1/2 lb every two weeks.
      You keep spending money on marketing efforts which used to have a big payoff but now they barely even bring in what they used to.
      You’ve gotten basically organized and productive with to-do lists and priorities, but you keep surfing productivity blogs and organizing files with no real productivity gains from these activities.

Only then do we get…

When More is Less, then Less is More

When we hit this arena of diminishing returns, some people double-down and waste resources. Other people give up entirely. Whereas the most effective strategy now becomes “more is less”–to focus on the most important elements and become efficient.

When a person or organization in this context focuses on putting energy towards priority tasks, then expending fewer resources (“less”) brings about more productivity, as measured by the ratio of inputs to outputs. Therefore less is more in this context.

But critical to this discussion is that less is NOT more until it is, until inputs have been maximized, until you are doing sufficient volume in the gym or really putting yourself out there in your marketing, etc. And even then, you might purposely choose inefficiency for reasons of fun, for artistic expression, or to develop excellence in a chosen area.

This incredibly buff 60-year-old guy has a workout that many people would call very inefficient:

He does 700 pushups, 10 sets of pullups, and 10 sets of dips, five days a week. It’s hard to argue with his results though, and he looks like he enjoys it. Can a person get fit and muscular on less than that? Absolutely. It’s all up to you how what you want to do with your life.

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