If your ambitions are big enough, you’re eventually going to reach the limit of the effort you can deploy to attain them. Much like the dilemma of determining when something needs to be perfect and when good enough is good enough, acknowledging that there is only so much effort to go around can be really difficult for high-achieving leaders and their teams. It can feel like giving up to put something that feels important on the back burner or maybe decide to not do it at all. Unless you can add more resources, you have to make a call.
In moments like that, it can be very helpful to consider your return on effort. It’s a little bit like focusing on your return on investment, but instead of measuring the return on the financial equity you’re putting on the line, you’re projecting the return on the sweat equity you have the capacity to invest.
Here are three factors to consider when assessing your return on effort:
Impact and Reach: Whatever your mode of investment, whether it’s money or effort or both, it makes sense to start with asking what’s the potential impact and what’s the potential reach? For impact, the next key question is what difference is this initiative making for the people it’s targeting? For reach, the key question is what’s the breadth of the audience we’re reaching? Determining the sweet spot answer between those two questions may be as much art as science. In any case, impact and reach are important criteria to consider in assessing your return on effort.
Short Term vs. Long Term: Next, you’d want to consider the time frame of the impact. Is it short-term or long-term? Another way to frame that is it episodic or longitudinal? Usually, episodic impacts are of the one and done variety. It makes an impact in the moment or for a few days afterwards but tends to fade over time. Longitudinal impacts last longer because they have time through repeated and consistent iterations to sink in. The irony is that big-bang episodic events can draw on as much effort and other resources as the longitudinal initiatives. When you compare and contrast the two, the most bang for the buck is often found in the longer-term initiatives where the effort budget is invested incrementally over time rather than all at once.
Leverage for the Future: One more factor to consider is what kind of leverage are you creating for the future with the effort you expend in the present? Another way of thinking about that question is what capital are you building for the future with the effort you’re expending now? If you’re building capital that you can reinvest in the future, it’s worth investing a lot of effort in the present. If you can’t identify where the leverage is, that’s a good sign that you need to reconsider how you’re investing your effort.
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