Founder Diary

February 22, 2022

Kill negative compounding before it kills you

Kill negative compounding before it kills you

Why does it always feel like work keeps multiplying?

A hamster swimming in a school of stingrays pretending to be one
A hamster swimming in a school of stingrays pretending to be one
A hamster swimming in a school of stingrays pretending to be one
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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What happens when you subscribe to a newsletter?

Here’s how it works for me.


It looks like a ten-minute thing because that’s what it takes to read one. It’s not much of a time commitment. I might even discover a possible stepping stone to whatever my goal is. You know what? I’m gonna go for it. I’ll hit subscribe and giddily await my first email.


It’s finally here. The newsletter’s arrived. I tap that email open and on my way through it, I find a couple (or a few) click-worthy links and also read those articles. This takes another ten (or more) minutes to read. And, you know what, those articles lead me to even more great, fantastic “must-read” articles.

The result?

My morning’s shot. That ten-minute read took an hour and a half.

Occasional nightmare scenario

I open those same links from the original newsletter, but I’m prepared. I know I have other things to do. Thankfully, I have a “solution.” I’ll just leave those all open as tabs to check out later. I know I’ll find those same hard-to-resist detours in those articles, so I’ll set some time aside.

But then hours pass. Days pass. Newsletters pass, and I find myself with what feels like hundreds of tabs. So, obviously, I need to spend hours pulling myself out of this self-made quagmire by doing some “well-earned” tab cleanup. Maybe I read some articles, bookmark others. Maybe, I’ll jot a note down to myself as a reminder to set time aside to clean up my bookmarks. I feel good. All this tidying makes me feel productive. Who cares if I haven’t actually done anything I need to get done for the day?

So, what just happened?

Well, cascading attention commitments become a form of “negative compounding” — your initial “investment” spawns time “expenses” of its own in a potentially unlimited chain of ever bigger “losses”. Progress compounds to beget more progress. When we do one productive thing (i.e., leading to our goal), the next step toward that goal becomes easier (or now even possible in the first place), and other things may become unnecessary. But, as usual, there’s also a dark side in that seemingly insignificant steps might compound into a local attention waste emergency.

It can subtly drain our resources from where they’re more needed. It turns the stepping stone into the bog it’s supposed to save me from. And this isn’t to mention that in the nightmare scenario it may take even more time to dive into the topic the second time over because the original newsletter is no longer fresh in my mind.

Now what?

The root cause of negative compounding is that we routinely fail to evenhandedly estimate second-order consequences and acknowledge that sometimes seemingly unremarkable decisions bring subsequent choices we aren’t necessarily prepared to deal with. In my example, the more we take up, the greater the chance that our time and attention commitments will continue to multiply out of control.

Luckily, the reverse is also true: killing to-dos or, better, avoiding them in the first place, prevents negative compounding. When we eliminate something we do on a regular basis, not only do we kill off the to-do itself, but also we prevent any possibility of outbranching.

So, one way to be more focused on what we do, and save time for what really matters, is to examine which things we engage in tend to drag us down into an attention rabbit hole. Sometimes even benign beginnings lead to ridiculous ends, like that time I took a five-minute detour from whatever I was doing to check out what the hell “analysis paralysis” meant, only to find myself watching videos of migrating stingrays in the Gulf of Mexico an hour later.

Are there tasks that routinely lead you to places you shouldn’t be? When you plan your day, do you account for “attention spillovers?” Can you think of a cue that can reliably get you back on track when you start drowning like that?

Once we learn to cut the negative compounding waste before it happens, we might find we have so much more attention and energy to focus on what really matters — that is, unless we overthink it and analysis paralysis finds us first!

Thanks for reading!

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