Opinions, Column

Less Is More: The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns

The night before my two AP Economics exams, I made a bold decision. Instead of studying, I spent the night curled up on the couch in my attic watching Invincible, some random Amazon Prime show I had discovered earlier that day. It was great—the show. I didn’t do too well on the exams, but if I could go back I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Every time I reached for the remote to click the “play next” button, I knew—genuinely knew—that if I had studied economics for even just one more second my final grade would have probably been worse. So, thanks to my high school economics teacher, I actually had a hyper-advanced understanding of the law of diminishing marginal returns. I applied it to my studying by simply quitting while I was ahead. 

So, with midterms upon us and finals coming up soon, I wanted to share this advice: start applying the law of diminishing marginal returns to your studying habits. 

While daunting at first, the law of diminishing marginal returns is a very simple economic theory to grasp. It states that as you increase your inputs, your outputs will eventually start to fall. 

Consider the following example: You’re hungry, so you decide to buy a footlong sub. You take the first bite, and immediately you feel your hunger start to fade. You take another bite and a bite after that one. Now you are completely satisfied, but you still have three-quarters of a sub to go. You don’t want to let it go to waste, so you finish it. But you soon realize your stomach feels sick because you overindulged. This is the law of diminishing marginal returns in action.

If we can apply it to eating, then there is no reason why we can’t apply it to something like studying. It’s a universal law, so why not universalize it? When we study, we invest our time in re-reading passages, googling articles, quizzing ourselves, looking over our notes, and more in hopes that we will receive a good grade in return. But, as the law of diminishing marginal returns states, the more you input—or the more time you invest in doing such tasks—eventually your additional outputs—or grades—will start to fall. 

Don’t believe me? Well, have you ever studied so much that you ended up just confusing yourself more? Or maybe the article you found used terms you didn’t know, which just stressed you out more. This is the law of diminishing marginal returns. 

Complicating things even more, you forgot about your physics homework. It’s due at midnight, and you’re just going to take the zero on it. Why? Well, because what began as an innocent search for an article on storytelling turned into a deep deep dive into how Chekhov’s gun is used in Back to the Future. The good intention to learn about the literary principle of Chekhov’s gun ultimately ended up hurting your schoolwork in the long run.

This is the law of diminishing marginal returns. It’s a principle we can apply to anything, including studying. Just because it is an economics principle doesn’t mean it is exclusive to economics. Eventually, there comes a point where we lose focus—where there is nothing more we can possibly do.

So, take a breath and watch yourself. Don’t stop studying, or eating subs, or writing, but be aware of your breaking points. And when your thinking starts to jumble, or you realize you are already full, know how to quit while you’re ahead.

March 27, 2023