The Cost Of Wasted Motion

by lynettebye2 min read8th Sep 20203 comments

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This post is about the gut-level motivation I get from acknowledging that the world is terribly broken. I think it’s an important reminder to combat the creeping complacency of everyday life. However, if you already struggle with guilt over not doing enough, I encourage you to first read Measuring Progress

This piece is cross-posted on my blog here.


Wasted motion is a real cost.

It’s easy to spend time answering email instead of fixing bugs in your code, or to read yet another source rather than start writing your thesis. This is wasted motion, and it is costly.  

Because you spent time answering emails instead of writing your paper, you now have to work through the evening, and can’t spend time with friends recharging. Or maybe you’ll sacrifice sleep, which will make you grumpy and less productive tomorrow. Or maybe you submit the paper a day later than you otherwise would have. 

Don’t undercount this cost. 

It’s easy to feel like this lost minute can’t really count in the overall scheme of the world. After all, how much can one minute be worth? But those minutes stack up. You’re not changing a decision to save one minute; you’re changing your entire mindset to save yourself hours, days, and even weeks over the course of a year. Because if you don’t, that time is gone forever. 

It's natural to feel like this saved minute doesn't matter, because that time would have just been spent doing more work. But that is wrong. Work isn’t a vacuum into which you throw your effort with no return; you work for a reason. Maybe because you wasted some time, a grant won’t be made, COVID research won’t happen, and people will die. Maybe you’ll only hit 90% of your target, and you’re passed over for a promotion. That is the cost of your wasted motion. 

You might object because you don't care about your job, and you can't reallocate saved time from your job to things you actually care about. If this is the case for you, I suggest you carefully consider whether you should stay in such a pointless job.

But if you’re building skills you’ll use later, or you’re trying to make an impact on the world now, or you just want more time to live your life to the fullest, then that wasted motion is a terrible cost. The time you spend procrastinating or doing pseudo-work or doing work you know isn’t really valuable means the world is worse than it would be otherwise. 

“Ah!” but you say, “It’s so stressful to think about the world that way. Surely I shouldn’t be obsessing every minute whether I’m letting children drown through my wasted motion?” 

No. It’s not healthy or practical to constantly obsess over optimizing everything. You definitely don’t want to be slowed down by constant guilt. It is true both that there is a cost to not moving faster and that you have limits to how fast you can move. And that’s okay. Wasted motion (mostly) isn’t about churning out more hours. It’s about making every step take you as far as it can. 

Notice that you’re bouncing around on Wikipedia reading vaguely related topics, but you could be doing research in a more focused way. Notice that you don’t need to read every part of the description, and instead just read what you need to learn for your project. Notice when you’re banging your head against the wall fruitlessly, and stop to find a better plan. These save motion.

But it might initially be good to spend some time truly internalizing the cost of wasted motion. The goal is not to obsess over the cost of wasted motion. And the goal is certainly not to feel vaguely guilty. 

The goal is to stop wasting motion

So try sitting with that feeling for a bit. Spell out what you’re giving up to dilly dally around. Are you not doing one valuable project? Are you not learning a new skill? Are you always busy so you can't relax?

You'll need to slow down enough to see what opportunities you're squandering. If you have a feeling that you can do all the big stuff so you’re not really squandering time, try setting all of these things as goals for a month and seeing which don't get done. What’s the most valuable thing you didn’t do? 

At the bare minimum, that is the opportunity cost of wasted motion. That is what you’re giving up. 

It is important that these costs actually feel motivating. If the thought of failing to finish that important project doesn’t make you wince at least a little, then you probably do need to stare at the dark world. How many people could you have saved in the future if you had just learned that skill? How much more safe would the world have felt if you had accomplished the project?

This isn't a sustainable way to think, but the great thing about human brains is that they learn. Spend some time ruminating on the costs, and your brain will learn to instinctively minimize that wasted motion. Once you've accomplished that, there's no more need to obsess constantly over the costs.

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:50 PM
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Thanks for writing this! I notice that this post seemed to have received some downvotes. I remember that when I read this post for the first time I felt a little irritated because I thought this post is not clear whether it (as I suppose) should be thought of as a summary of the concept of "wasted motion" from the Replacing Guilt series, or as an independently reached original contribution.

Thanks for the comment, Meerpirat. This is the latter, but felt closely enough related to use the same terminology. I'd started writing the "Getting Excited about Efficiency" post and realized that the idea didn't resonate with some people because they didn't viscerally grok why getting more stuff done was valuable. So I wrote this post about why people should care about the ideas in Half-Assing It, or my later Noticing and Getting Excited posts.

I think this post is a good counterpoint to common adages like 'don't sweat the small stuff' or 'direction over speed' that often come up in relation to career and productivity advice.


At the risk of making a very tenuous connection, this reminded me of an animal navigation strategy for moving towards a goal which has an unstable orientation (i.e. the animal is not able to reliably face towards the goal) - progress can still be made if it moves faster when facing towards the goal than away from it. (I don't think this is a very well known navigation strategy, at least it didn't seem to be in 2014 when I wrote up an experiment on this in my PhD thesis [Chapter 5]). Work is obviously a lot more multi-faceted than spatial navigation, but maybe an analogy could be made to school students or junior employees who don't get much choice about what they are working on day to day and recommend that they go all out on the important things and just scrape by on the rest.