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Diminishing Returns vs. Compound Interest

Sunrises don’t suffer from the law of diminishing returns the way sunrise pictures do. Getting up for the sunrise in the summer means getting up early, and you’re either in or you aren’t. Yesterday morning I lingered in bed a few minutes too long and missed the sun breaking the horizon. This morning I made a point of catching that moment and still missed it by five minutes. But I managed to witness a decent show nonetheless.

The thing about sunrises is that once you’re up and experiencing it you recognize it was worth the effort. The thing about sunrise pictures is that they become too much of a good thing already! Too many sunrise pictures on social media and you experience the law of diminishing returns. People like the first, but by the third day in a row of posting that sunrise (or sunset) they’ve had just about enough of you. Best to practice a bit of moderation already. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all.

The first cup of coffee offers a thrill you don’t get on the second cup. Wrapping your hands around a hot mug of coffee and taking that first sip is right up there with that sunrise for sensory thrills. The last sip in that mug is just trying to capture the last of the fading heat before the dreaded lukewarm blahness takes over. You have the second cup to recapture that thrill but alas it’s not the same (but so worth it anyway). By the third cup the magic is completely gone, you’re just in maintenance mode. If you have another you start questioning your choices in life. Such is the nature of diminishing returns.

The nature of addiction is similar to that coffee experience; always searching for that thrill, increasing the dose, continuing past the point where you know you should stop. I’m simplifying it and have seen too many people struggle with addiction to treat the topic cavalierly, but I think about it because I’m challenged on it. People toss the word addiction around lightly. I’m not addicted to coffee, but I dance on the edge with it. So too with other things. I’ve danced with the topic of how much is healthy and how much is too much? on many habits; alcohol, coffee, Words With Friends, social media… blogging.

My wife runs almost every day, and has since well before I met her more than a quarter century ago. She’s a better person after a run when she hasn’t run in a few days. As with coffee so too with exercise: Too much of a good thing offers diminishing returns at best and injury to self at worst. I’ve seen her go beyond her comfort level in training for stretch goals and become injured. 5K to half marathon is her natural range and she thrives in it. Her habit loop is generally very positive and has given her a lifetime of good health and energy in return.

Self-awareness helps you develop good habits, and so do the people you surround yourself with. If you’re truly the average of the five people you associate with the most, then surely having those five be purpose-driven, physically active, supportive friends is better than the five being aimless, hard-living and dismissive acquaintances would be. Coming back to diminishing returns, those five will reinforce that first, second and third act of a habit. Do one more rep versus have another drink. Habits become more about reinforcing identity and less about the result of an individual act. The return over time builds on itself. The return on moderation, consistent exercise, getting proper sleep and reinforcing good habits with a network of positive influences in your life is the opposite of diminishing returns, it’s compound interest.

A lifetime of getting up early and seeing the sunrise has generally benefited me more than staying up late watching television or closing out the bar would have been. There’s a place for those things too, but I’ve found the benefits of staying up late offers diminishing returns as I get older while getting up and getting the heart rate up, reading a bit and writing has given me compound interest. And after all, are we riding the wave to the beach or sliding sideways to the curve? The end might be the same but the journey should be more interesting along the way.

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