Going overboard

Why and how to overdo it, on purpose

June 8, 2019 · 2 min read

When I was a sophomore in college, I got obsessed with nutrition. I started recording everything I ate in a notebook, not only calories but carbs, protein and fat. I totaled it daily and had targets for each. I read the nutrition labels on everything; if it didn’t have a label (say, an apple), I would look it up online.

I went overboard. But:

The result is that today I can lose weight with very little investment of mental energy. I just get a little more disciplined about avoiding sugar and starch and cutting down on portion sizes and snacks. If necessary, I can count calories in my head, no need to write anything down. It’s easy because I’m relying on the habits I built decades ago, and using the knowledge to make smart tradeoffs.

When I redesigned this blog recently, I did a similar thing, this time more consciously.

I suck at design and wanted to get better. So I did a whole process, even though it was overkill for a simple blog. I wrote down my motivation and goals. I listed different types of people who might come to the site and what they would be looking for. I listed the content elements I would need, and grouped them in different ways to settle on a site structure. I drafted the content, then made wireframes. I experimented with different layouts, compared them side by side, and picked the one I liked best. I did the same thing with typefaces and colors. I even, as recommended in Refactoring UI, created a sizing and spacing system, and a whole color palette with nine shades of blue (definitely overkill). I spent hours setting this stuff up and obsessively tweaking it. I also added some subtle touches like the map texture in the background of the nav bar (did you notice that?)

Why? I wanted to find the point of diminishing returns—by deliberately going past it. Design is an area where what seem like very small details can take a large investment to perfect, but can also have a large payoff. My tendency in the past has often been to cut corners here. I wanted to learn which corners are worth keeping, and how to keep them efficiently.

Next time I do a project, I’ll have a better sense of how much time is even worth putting in. By overinvesting once, I’m building skills and intuition that will be useful for a long time.

If you’ve never gotten obsessed with something and gone a little overboard… I recommend trying it sometime. For a month, obsessively maintain Inbox Zero, or be perfectly on time to every appointment, or keep your apartment sparkling clean. Whatever you’d like to get a little better at, for a temporary period, get a lot better. By going a little too deep, at least once, you’ll be able to make smarter tradeoffs in the future.

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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