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 the key takeaway of Illich’s Law?

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 techniques 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.

What is the Science Behind Illich’s Law or Law of Diminishing Returns?

Research shows that sleep deprivation is detrimental to productivityThe negative impact on cognitive abilities due to the lack of rest is the underlying rationale of the Law of Diminishing Returns or Illich’s Law.

How do other time management methods challenge Illich Law?

The most apparent antagonist work approach is the “Deep Work” method which 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 Carlson’s Law philosophy that supports the idea that we are more productive with a continuous work period 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 in science, philosophy, theology, and history studies, 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 Illich, counterproductivity arises when pursuing 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, concerning 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 technologies, especially low-scale ones.

“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: Give Yourself a Break!

Reducing distractions allows value creation, 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 and resting time

A decluttered mindset to enhance cognitive abilities is a great idea to be more productive. To help you in this productivity journey, Deep Work or Pomodoro techniques or an Eisenhower Method combined with a Pareto Analysis of your tasks can be highly effective.

Not everyone relentlessly pushes toward “producing more.” Each individual has their life philosophy. Some people even say it’s healthy – sometimes – to do nothing. Regardless of what makes you happy, whether or not you agree with Illich’s philosophy, It is fair to say it is crucial to avoid burnout. Do yourself a favor and read this article on optimizing your well-being in your personal life with a Pareto approach.



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