We all want to succeed; to excel at everything we do. We want to learn, grow, and improve in our daily activities, whatever they may be. The fact that you are reading this article shows me that you desire to better yourself. (See what I did there?)
But no matter what the activity or skill is, there comes a time when you need to stop. When trying to push forward may actually send you backward. Or at least, move forward at a much slower pace. This is called the point of diminishing returns, and learning to recognize it can go a long way toward maximizing your time.
We all have the same amount of time each day. It’s how we choose to use it that varies. No matter what we are trying to do, the natural tendency is to keep working on improving, getting better, or faster. But you don’t want to waste your precious time either. And there comes a time, this point of diminishing returns, when you are wasting time. Or at least, not maximizing it.
You would think if you could make an hour’s worth of progress in an hour, that you could make that same amount of progress in subsequent hours, but this isn’t true. Depending on the task and our skill level, the gain will begin to drop-off at some point. That drop-off will become drastic if we keep pushing, and at some point, progress will actually be reversed.
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Exactly where that point is will vary depending on the person, the task, and the relative skill level. I’ve been learning to play the guitar for about five months now, and I’m still identifying where that point is.
Because it keeps changing. In my first week, it was about five minutes. The tips of the fingers on my left hand rapidly became sore. If I had tried to push through and keep going, I would have developed blisters, which would have halted my progress completely.
I needed to know when to hold ‘em.
When to stop and do something else. I didn’t have only to devote five minutes to my guitar playing, just quit abusing my left hand. So, I would stop using my left hand and just practice with my right; strumming, picking, fingerpicking. Or I could put the guitar down and study music theory. There are few things as exciting as music theory. Well, maybe binary math, but it’s a close second.
When I was a runner, I pushed myself almost every day. But after years of daily mileage, I learned to recognize the signs of diminishing returns. When pushing myself further would result in fatigue or injury that would affect tomorrow’s training. So, I would hold up and walk. I was still exercising and getting a cardiovascular benefit, but I wasn’t pushing myself beyond the point of pain and injury.
Know when to fold ‘em
But sometimes, just changing direction isn’t enough; you have to fold ’em. Stop. Call it a day. Pack it in. This is frequently more mental than physical. My fingers would suddenly forget which string they were supposed to pluck, or I just couldn’t take another step. Physically, I was fine, but mentally, I was pushing too far.
The brain wants to fold the hand.
This point is even more important, because you will begin to not just lose momentum, but lose skill. For twenty minutes, or thirty, or an hour, you learned; you retained knowledge. Then you stopped. You have acquired all the knowledge the brain is going to process. Then it shuts down. Beyond that, you are not only wasting time, but you will start to lose the knowledge already gained.
Sherlock Holmes likened the brain to an attic. You can keep putting stuff up there, but eventually, it fills up. Then, to put something else up there, you have to take something out. You have reached the point of diminishing returns, and some of the stuff you just learned gets taken out of the attic.
It’s the same with physical activity. I know because I exceeded that point too many times. And then it’s frequently too late. If you are running around a track, you can fold your hand at any moment. The car is right over there. But if you are running a large loop or an out and back course, you need to know your limits before you begin.
I was in Chicago one early spring day when the weather turned particularly fine. I started running north along Lake Michigan, enjoying the weather, the sites, and the people. But I didn’t fold my hand when I should have. I couldn’t. By the time I realized it, I had gone too far. I couldn’t just stop; I had to get back to my hotel. I didn’t have money for a cab, and this was years before cell phones.
Know when to walk away
Sometimes just stopping for the day isn’t enough. Maybe you’ve already pushed too far for too long. That point of diminishing returns? You reached it before you even laced up your sneakers; before taking the guitar out of the case. You’re on the verge of an injury or a mental roadblock.
You need to walk away.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a day off. This being said by someone who hates taking a day off. I’ve found that, for me, a day off can lead to two, and them more, and that’s unacceptable. But a time will come when it’s not only necessary, but beneficial. You will come back from that day off with a renewed sense of purpose, your mind clear and your body rested.
Of course, if you have managed yourself properly, a ‘day off’ can look different than it does for most people. At one point, my training was at a level where a three-mile run felt like a walk to the mailbox does today. So that was a day off. Maybe a day off with the guitar is just a completely different set of exercises.
But, whatever it means to you, if you find yourself reaching that point of diminishing returns earlier and earlier each day, it’s time to walk away, just for one day. Take a break. You’re not goofing off; you are regenerating. In sprinting, there is a workout known as intervals. You run faster than usual for a period, then you rest. Rest could mean jogging, walking, or stopping depending on your level of fitness.
But here’s the thing. The interval in the name isn’t the time spent sprinting; it’s the time spent resting. The rest is part of the training. Make a day off part of the plan, and you won’t be forced to do so when you least desire it.
And know when to run
But, you didn’t listen, did you? Didn’t listen to your mind or your body. You kept pushing beyond the point of no return day after day, with no rest; no days off.
And now, you have to run away. Take an extended vacation. Stop running for a few days, even a week. Leave the guitar on its stand for the weekend. It’s too late for a day off now. Your brain or your body needs more than that. And it is crucial that you listen this time.
You didn’t slow down when you needed to. You didn’t stop when you needed to, and you didn’t take a day off when you needed to. Keep pushing now, and you could be out for weeks, if not months. A sore muscle can be easily treated, a torn muscle not so much. Mental fatigue can be cured by a day off; a complete breakdown or burnout takes much longer. Torn muscle from guitar playing? There are about 30 muscles and as many bones in each hand. Do the math.
And that’s the thing here; it may not be physical. If you find yourself thinking about the daily ritual of learning the skill you have been working on and cringing, it’s time to run away. Take an extended break; a vacation. If you don’t, you may never recover. That thing, whatever it is, will come to represent something you loathe.
And so, the guitar goes in the closet. The running shoes get tossed into the garage and left there.
Pushing ourselves is what we do. It’s how we got to where we are. And any new skill, we want to excel at as quickly as possible, so we drive forward every day. But at some point, enough is enough. Learning to recognize that point and reacting to it is a skill all its own.
Stopping just before that point will allow you to sit in for another hand.