How to Avoid Multiplying Useless Work

Have you ever wondered why small things can feel so huge? Do you want to know how to avoid feeling flustered because of small interruptions? I discovered an explanation in Matt Perman’s new book, What’s Best Next (which I reviewed here). Also, Perman gives some advice to help avoid this feeling, which you can find at the end of this post.

Researchers have found that whenever most systems — such as airports, freeways, and other such things — exceed about 90 percent capacity, efficiency drops massively. Not just slightly, but massively. This is called the “ringing effect.” The reason is that as a system nears its capacity, the effect of relatively small disturbances is magnified exponentially. This is why traffic slows down at rush hour almost inexplicably. When you think about it, unless there is an accident, there’s almost no reason that traffic should be going slow. And, here’s the thing: you’re right. Or, in other words, there is a reason, but it’s not what you’d expect. The reason traffic is slow is because of the relatively small and otherwise insignificant braking that some guy four miles ahead did — and the person a quarter mile behind him, and half a mile behind him. It’s not that they are slamming on their brakes; under ordinary circumstances, what they are doing would have almost no effect on the f low of traffic. The problem is that once capacity is past about 90 percent, small disturbances have a huge effect. And so traffic slows down, sometimes to a crawl. That’s the ringing effect.

Perman gives an example of how useless work multiplies when a system is too close to capacity:

You see the ringing effect, for example, when you are trying to schedule a meeting for ten people, and they all have to be there. It’s almost impossible to find a time that works for everyone, resulting in an untold number of emails going back and forth. And then, once everything is figured out, something unexpected comes up for someone and you need to reschedule the meeting again (and then reschedule the other stuff on your plate that is now interfering with the new time). That “rearranging” is the ringing effect. And it takes time away from the productive stuff that you have to do (in this case, times ten). And the effects continue cascading, for as you keep rescheduling, other people involved need to reschedule as well (even if they aren’t part of the group for the original meeting). And on it goes.

The best thing to do to avoid the ringing effect? Relentlessly prioritize your work by learning to say no to things that don’t fit inside your giftings or calling! We are finite creatures and shouldn’t expect that it is our job to solve every problem that comes our way. Remember this: the need is not the call…

Michael Hyatt has a great post on how to say no.

How about you? What other tips do you have for beating the ringing effect? Let us know in the comments?


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