Illich’s Law or Law of Diminishing Returns: 1 simple concept

Feb 3, 2021 | Business & Life Advice, Time Management

Illich’s Law

“Beyond a certain threshold, human efficiency decreases, even becoming negative.” – Ivan Illich

What is Illich’s Law key takeaway?

Illich’s Law or “Law of Diminishing Returns” suggests that optimal productivity is reached with an appropriate balance between working time and resting time as productivity decreases after a certain period of continuous work. In short, relevant breaks are essential to staying productive.

Illustration of Illich’s Law / Law of Diminishing Returns

Illich's Law - Law of Diminishing Returns - ParetoAnalysis.Tools

How is Illich Law used nowadays?

Numerous time management methods highlight the importance of voluntary breaks to be more productive. The Pomodoro Technique is one of them.  Closely related to concepts such as timeboxing, the method suggests breaking down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, and separating them with short breaks.

How is Illich Law challenged by other time management methods?

The most apparent antagonist work approach is the “Deep Work” method that recommends a long period of deep-focus work vs. a short-one with the Illich Law’s philosophy. Deep Work is an improved version of the Carlson’s Law philosophy that supports the idea that we are more productive with continuous work period made of similar tasks. Deep Work is all about working in a distraction-free environment that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limits for maximal productivity.

History of Illich’s Law

Ivan Illich the polymath

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was a polymath born in Austria, of French and Serbo-Croatian descent. After graduating from studies in science, philosophy, theology, and history, he started his adulthood in the USA: first as a Catholic priest, then as a pastor for Puerto Rican immigrants. His generosity for the Puerto Rican community led him to be appointed as Vice-Rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico.

His work as Vice-Rector galvanized an emerging criticism of policies promoting economic and technological development. He later published his most widely read books: Deschooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973), and Medical Nemesis (1976). In each case, Illich identified what he termed the phenomenon of counterproductivity.

The principle of counterproductivity

According to to Illich, counterproductivity arises when the pursuit of a technical process undermines its original goals. In simpler words,  when a beneficial process or technology is turned into a negative one. It is an idea that Illich applies to different contexts. For example, with respect to travel he argues that beyond a critical speed, “no one can save time without forcing another to lose it…[and] motorized vehicles create the remoteness which they alone can shrink”. For Illich, the correct response was learning to practice a more disciplined and limited use of science and technology and invent alternative, especially low-scale, technologies.

“In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.” – Ivan Illich

How Illich’s Law or  Law of Diminishing Returns is referred to nowadays

In the more contemporary world, the assertation that “productivity decreases after a certain number of working hours” is referred to as Illich’s Law or  Law of Diminishing Returns. Although it is not clear if Illich has ever made such a statement, Illich’s philosophy about the drawback of a relentless pursuit of productivity and the importance of a “work-life” balance remains intact.

Conclusion and Suggestions

Reducing distractions allows value creation to happen, but keeping productivity high is also a key element in the value creation process. The Law of diminishing returns or Illich’s Law reminds us that having rest is essential to keep productivity high. Ultimately the overall and optimal productivity is reached with an appropriate balance between working time and resting time.

Having a decluttered mindset to enhance cognitive abilities is the idea to be more productive, but not everyone is relentlessly pushing toward  “producing more”. Each individual has his life philosophy. Regardless of what makes you happy, whether or not you agree with Illich’s philosophy, you can always maximize your well-being with a  Pareto Rule approach.

For more Business & Life articles with an optimization mindset approach, visit the blog of

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