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How to Compound Your Effort

The building blocks of work.

Building blocks don’t constitute much on their own. But put together they can create great structures. Building blocks are often used to explain the most basic unit something is built from. For example, the building blocks of DNA are the nitrogenous bases. The building blocks of a protein? Amino acids. The building blocks of physics? Atoms. Of course, scoping matters. Consider that the building blocks of sentences are words, but the building blocks of words are letters. You’ve probably heard about these analogies at school, but what’s more important is how they can be applied to improve your life. Have you ever thought about your hard work in terms of building blocks? Even more importantly: could you be building anything of substance with them? Let’s examine how to compound your effort.

For now, think of building blocks as units from which you can build a structure. Unfortunately, today most office/electronic work is difficult to translate into concrete terms because it’s increasingly more about information. In large organizations, it becomes a challenge to ever see our individual work crystallize into something concrete. And because the nature of computers and systems have become so responsive (anything is a click away), we mistakenly link working with having immediate results. But structures take time to build. Real building work (not busyness) is what correlates with concrete benefits.

Which leads us to the next question: what do we work for? Surely it’s not just for quick results or constant productivity. Building blocks are more about the intrinsic value of what we produce, and less about temporary outcomes. Hence, a building block becomes a block when we are able to save our effort into something valuable. Eventually, a series of building blocks can be used to build something with staying power—like a structure. And we begin to think structurally when we conceptualize what we can build with those blocks.

Building blocks

Let’s look at how we can leverage our work into something of substance. First we need to identify the characteristics of our building blocks:

Utility (Intrinsic value)

Utility is about identifying the fundamental value of what you do. Which key activities represent the core value of your work? To answer this, consider how your work relates to the following three kinds of activities: The activities that we perform that add value do so by transforming materials or information into something concrete like a service or a product. For instance, if you’re a teacher and work on a lesson plan, you add value by delivering it in class and transforming it into learning. The activities that don’t add value are the ones that result in waste or defects. And the activities that don’t add value but are needed are things like maintenance or waiting time. Utility is about finding your activities that add the most value, and making sure that most of your energy is spent there. These blocks are the foundation that help translate your effort into something beneficial.

Longevity (Service life)

Now that you’ve identified which activities add the most value, think about how long-lasting they are. Longevity is about making sure that your effort is not just spent, but accumulated—like a layer of bricks. Ask yourself: will my work keep paying off (not just for others, but for myself as well) in six months, a year, or two? When you make sure that most of your work becomes concrete and enduring, you begin to see the potential of your building blocks at your disposal. Long-term results require longer periods of collected effort. For example, if you’re planning a lesson for your class, it would pay off to design it in such a way that you can reuse it over the next few school years.

Utility without longevity is like a form of planned obsolescence. Conventionally, we think of service life as the time that we expect a product to be reasonably in use. But what about the fruits of your labor for yourself beyond income?

Relevance (Market value)

Relevance is about recognizing the needs, trends, and challenges of your work, and making sure your effort is directly connected to them. What activities about your work do you think will continue to be relevant two or three years from now? Think about the effort you apply today, and then strive to produce results that matter in the future. We must work hard to produce something that is valuable and long-lasting, and find how it’ll stay relevant. It’s easier than ever to connect with end-users to find out what they want. Also important is to recognize how what you do is relevant for yourself. Does your work allow you to learn new skills?

Structures (Utility+Longevity+Relevance=Structure)

Once you identify your building blocks, it’s time to collect them and think about what you might want to build with them. How can you put together your building blocks of work to build something more permanent? Structures may take time to be built, but they continue to offer value way after they’re completed. Call it residual value. To understand residual value, think of structures in terms of energy—like a wind turbine, a solar panel, or a dam. The wind turbine and the solar panel can produce continual electricity. It takes time to build a dam and accumulate water, but then it generates power. How can you arrange your building blocks to create a structure that will provide for you (and others) after you’re done?

If we were to be laid off, or wanted to change careers, structures are what allow us to keep benefiting from our long-term efforts. In The $100 Startup, Chris Guillebeau recommends that we find the intersection of something we especially like to do and are good at (utility), and that other people are also interested in (relevance). He says: “…any individual person won’t be able to provide a solution to every problem or be interesting to everyone. But in the overlap between the two circles, where passion or skill meets usefulness, a microbusiness built on freedom and value can thrive.”

I’m not suggesting that all you should do is work more. But that when you do work, you make it count. And even find a way to have fun discovering what you could build. Building blocks can certainly be formed with active learning. Our ability to learn, replicate, and improve a process/product due to our work is effort well spent. Growing as a result of your work is a way to gain skills and strengths. This way, you can hone your building blocks and begin to work on a structure. But before we begin building, we need materials—and before we produce energy, we need a turbine. Building blocks left scattered without a structure is a losing proposition.

We need to think structurally—in the future we want to build for ourselves by providing value for others. Leverage comes from turning your work into blocks, and blocks into structures that continue to work for you. How to compound your effort is achieved just like compound interest, you add all the accumulated effort (interest) back into your structure (principal).

Juan F. Diaz

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Hi Juan!
Awesome post!!! One of the best so far! I especially like the analogy of a dam. Some really excellent advice about how to think about the work we do and how to make it count!

Juan F. Diaz

Hi Ted!
Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you found some useful ideas. Somehow I find dams fascinating, except of course when they interfere with the salmon!

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