Beware of Performance Load

Being competent is a good thing, but you need to be aware of one danger: “If not controlled, work will flow to the competent man until he submerges” (Charles Boyle). So if you aren’t deliberate about it, your competence can actually be your undoing.

This is the issue of performance load. Here’s how Josh Kaufman explains it in The Personal MBA:

Being busy is better than being bored, but it’s possible to be too busy for your own good.

Performance load is a concept that explains what happens when you have too many things to do. Above a certain point, the more tasks a person has to do, the more their performance on all of those tasks decreases.

Imagine juggling bowling pins. If you’re skilled, you may be able to juggle three or four without making a mistake. The more pins that must be juggled at once, the more likely you are to make a mistake and drop them all.

If you want to be productive, you must set limits. Juggling hundreds of active tasks across scores of projects is not sustainable: you’re risking failure, subpar work, and burnout. Remember Parkinson’s Law: if you don’t set a limit on your available time, your work will expand to fill it all.

Part of setting limits means “preserving unscheduled time to respond to new inputs.” This is necessary to handle the unexpected. And this means we must recognize that downtime is not wasteful. Kaufman goes on:

The default mind-set of many modern businesses is that “downtime” is inefficient and wasteful — workers should be busy all the time. Unfortunately, this philosophy ignores the necessity of handling unexpected events, which always occur. Everyone only has so many hours in a day, and if your agenda is constantly booked solid, it’ll always be difficult to keep up with new and unexpected demands on your time and energy.

Schedule yourself (in terms of appointments and projects) at no more than 80% capacity. Leave time to handle the unexpected. And to enable yourself to do this, realize that, counterintuitively, people (and systems — this is true of highways, airports, and all sorts of things) become less efficient when operating at full capacity, not more, and that downtime can actually increase productivity. If you keep these things in mind, you can help prevent your competence from being your undoing.