When to Take it Slow

I worked on an organic farm in 2010 that grew produce for high-end gourmet restaurants in the Bay Area. Because we were selling the vegetables for use in haute cuisine, every single vegetable had to be carefully grown, picked, and packaged to maintain their pristine condition. Obviously, many vegetables didn't come off the vine perfect to begin with, so we only picked ones that looked perfect, but even then a lot of care went into the picking.

When we were harvesting the summer squash, we had to get down on our hands and knees and reach under large, thick bushes to get at the fruit. They were attached at the stem to thick, woody vines covered in thorns, meaning we had to use gloves and shears to get at the fruit.

Here's where things got tricky. The skin on squash is incredibly delicate until they've been severed from the vines for at least a couple minutes and there were a lot of pointy objects involved in the operation: the shears and thousands of thorns. Scratching the skin didn't ruin the squash, but it did ruin them for our clients. We had hundreds or thousands of squash to harvest and we would be able to sell most of them. The more we picked, the more revenue the farm brought in (it was non-profit, but we had a lot of costs). But the faster we picked, the more likely we were to ruin the squash. After ruining a lot, we opted for slow-but-steady-wins-the-race, or as the head of the farm said, "Take your time, get it right."

"Take Your Time, Get it Right"

If you have all the information, you can do a cost-benefit analysis of taking your time versus rushing through something. In the above example, if I have the following table, I can tell how fast I ought to go to optimize my productivity. All values are in squash per minute.

Obviously I should harvest four squash a minute to maximize production and minimize waste in this case.  Sometimes the solution is not so clear, however. This was simple because I knew how long I would be working for, this was our only task for the day (so I couldn't calculate opportunity cost), there was little chance of burnout, and only a couple of factors to evaluate (waste and productivity). It turned out that I should go relatively slowly, only cutting four squash a minute.

When rushing through a task can make you perform it sloppily, ask yourself whether that's acceptable, and if so, what pace can optimize your productivity.

Fast Start, Long Haul

What about when I'm putting my daily routine together? How much should I cram in there? Should I try to meditate, shower, make my bed, commute to and from work, plan my day in detail, work on five different projects, attend meetings, go out for lunch, write a blog post, lift weights, go mountain biking, cook dinner, read, learn new languages, build a website, learn Python, eat 3000 calories, drink two liters of water, meet new people, clean up, spend time with family, spend time with friends, and sleep 9.25 hours -- every single day?

Days are too short and life is too long to try to do everything you want to do all in one day. Rome wasn't built in a day, so neither will you be.

My suggestion is go for a fast start, getting a lot of momentum as soon as you can, and be willing to burn excess resources in the process. When you're studying a new language, spend two hours learning 25 new words and whole new grammar concepts every day, but make it the only thing you put that much effort into at the time. Don't try to learn any other difficult subjects for those first few days.

Then, dig in for the long siege. Slow down your pace to 5 new words a day, a bit of grammar review, and a little extra practice on the weekends. Or spend a couple hours a couple times a week. The best routine is the one you stick to. Make it fun and don't get burnt out. It will take five times as long to learn the language 5 words at time instead of 25 at a time, but it will happen. Unless you're at the Army's intensive language base in Monterrey and your teacher's threatening to make you run 10 miles if you slack, you're just going to give up once the novelty wears off. So dig in.

When you're trying to do something that will take years, take your time. Accept that it doesn't need to happen soon because if you try to make it happen soon, it won't happen at all. Accrue sustainable gains and build success slowly. Study a little, review a little. Study a little, review a little. Do that every day for twenty years and see what you end up learning.

Dealing with Deadlines

I'm in college, and although I'm trying to maximize my own productivity, my professors have their own pace they want to set so we can keep up with the lectures and problem sets so that I can get good grades. If I learn something a year after I get tested on it, that's not as helpful to me as learning it before the test. What do you do when those don't align?

You have a couple options. You can not care about the test, and just learn at your own pace. If you're not going straight to grad school or looking for those handful of jobs that care about grades, just don't worry about it. If you are going to grad school or looking for one of those jobs, maybe rethink how much you want them, but basically you don't have a choice. You just have to treat grad school like a drill sergeant who will make you run 10 miles if you slack. Try giving 1500 dollars to your best friend and have him donate 5 dollars to the political party you despise every day you don't spend 8 hours studying. Sorry, dude. That's what it takes.


We're well into summer! Go swimming if you haven't yet. Life's too short to work all day.