Increasing Marginal Returns to Work

Do a Google search for "increasing returns to labor" and here are the suggested related searches:

Clearly, we're more familiar with the decreasing marginal returns to work: the idea that you are most productive during your first few hours of the day and by the end of the day you've used up most of your cognitive bandwidth and need a break. I wholeheartedly agree with this premise and see it in my own life. However, when driving your career, one must also keep in mind the increasing marginal returns to work: the idea that at the end of the day it takes less effort to make a larger impression. Let me explain.

Lots of people work 40 hours a week, assuming that anybody who works more than that has no regard for work/life balance. Without a doubt, there are those people who far overwork (or should I say companies that far overwork their people?) and have no work/life balance. However, I have discovered that with the smallest amount of additional effort (2-5 hours per week) I can differentiate myself and make a lasting impression on my superiors. And it's not just about the quantity of hours; it's about working those hours during a time of critical need.

It's 5pm on Thursday and everyone is leaving the office. I'm poking around in one of our lower environments, testing out the site, when I notice a problem: I'm getting an authentication error. I start digging into it and realize we're going to have the same issue in production the next day. Eight hours later the site is back up and running and the production risk is mitigated. I took ownership of a critical issue (authentication) at a late hour (5pm on a Thursday with everyone walking out the door) and drove it to completion. Yes, it was a long night. But over the course of the month it was a blip on the radar in terms of hours worked. Yet it had a larger impact on getting me promoted than any other 8 hours I've worked in the past year. Why is that?

When you're working on a key issue late in the day or weekend, you're working on functionality when no one else wants to. Early in the day, everyone is willing and eager to please the boss. The return to volunteering for fixing an issue is minimal. But volunteer at the end of the day and you're the hero who allowed everyone else to go home to their families. Increasing marginal returns for labor.

Remember, one must work smart. You can't just start logging more hours doing work that isn't highly visible. The key is to step in at a time when no one else wants to in order to perform a key duty. It's giving the extra 10% when no one else is willing. To others, it may look like you're working twice as hard, but you're not. It's only an extra 10%. And that 10% will speak much louder than any other 10%. It's the 10% that signals you go above and beyond.

You also must realize you can't be the guy every time. It won't be good for you and it won't allow your co-workers opportunities to shine. Allow them to stay late sometimes so you can go home to family. Remember, it's called work/life balance for a reason. It's a balance. Don't burn out. Then you're no good to anyone, including yourself.

portrait title

About Scott

I am a software engineer from Bozeman, MT enjoying the slightly warmer climate of Colorado. I think code can change lives. I think lives are worth changing. I write code.

You can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, , and Github.