How you allocate and use your time every day is as important to productivity as the work you actually do. You have to be smart and strategic about when you work, what you work on, and how long you do it—otherwise, some of your time may be wasted. Illich’s Law, or the Law of Diminishing Returns, says that after working for a while, your productivity decreases—then becomes negative.
What does Illich’s Law mean?
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We often think of being productive as getting a lot done, but productivity can—and should—also focus on the quality of that work, too. Some good work is, in most cases, better than a lot of shoddy work.
Illich’s law, conceptualized by philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, suggests that not only does your productivity decrease after you’ve spent too much time on something, but it gets counterproductive. The work you produce after being at it too long could actually be straight-up bad—you shouldn’t have even done it in the first place.
How to defeat Illich’s Law
To prevent a decline in your work, you need a strategy. First, use time-tracking software or a simple spreadsheet for a week or two to figure out how much time you spend on your typical tasks. Make sure to take notes on when you feel yourself becoming fatigued, bored, or less productive. As always, use timeboxing to structure your calendar, giving every task its own entry and defining timelines through the day.
After you’ve collected some data, assess the time you give yourself to do things. Try reducing the time allotment for each task, so you stop before that bored or unproductive feeling kicks in. Don’t be afraid you’re giving yourself “too little” time, either: The Yerkes-Dodson Law says that your peak of productivity comes when you have just the right amount of stress. Having less time to do something will not only make you more productive under Illich’s Law, but Yerkes-Dodson and Parkinson’s Law, which says you’ll over-complicate work if you have too long to attend to it. Basically, a bunch of major theorists all agree one one thing for various reasons: Working on anything for too long just ain’t it.
Once you’ve reduced how much time you’re giving yourself to do things, return to your calendar, which has your timeboxes in it. Change the timing parameters for each entry to your new allotments. This will leave you with small breaks visible in the calendar throughout the day. Schedule breaks in there. The second thing Illich’s law emphasizes is that people need breaks in addition to a reduction in work on specific tasks. Don’t just give yourself less time for each task and move from one to another faster; take breaks in between.
In general, your productivity needs more breaks, so even giving yourself a scheduled time to go grab a coffee, scroll social media, or make a personal call will help bring Illich’s Law down.