What Do Porridge and Productivity Have in Common?

Sometimes simple stories have deep lessons. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is a popular story for children, but it also has a hidden productivity lesson for all of us.

We all know about Goldilocks and the porridge. When she tried the first bowl, it was too hot. When she tried the second bowl, it was too cold. And of course, the third bowl was just right. It was perfectly obvious, even to her, that “just right” is what any reasonable person should be after.

Maximum sustainable output

There’s a concept in economics known as the maximum sustainable output. A country’s maximum sustainable output is the highest level of output it can sustain in the long run. It’s not a hard limit on output, and in fact a country can easily raise its output above this level. A common situation for this is during wartime, when a country may ramp up production dramatically to support the war effort.

However, if the maximum sustainable output is exceeded, the output has to come crashing down at some point (after all, by definition, that level of output is not sustainable). After this happens, the country has to slog through a long period of low output. The worst part is that the bust is always bigger than the boom.

During periods of high output, everything looks great. Everyone is happy and optimistic that the situation will last forever. But when reality sets in and output plummets, everyone is miserable, and they wonder why they allowed things to overheat in the first place, since they ended up paying a steep price for it.

In the long run, a country gets the highest level of output overall by always staying as close as possible to the maximum sustainable output. There won’t be any periods of miraculous productivity, but there also won’t be any periods of awful stagnation. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

How it applies to us

This concept applies to people as well, because we all have our own level of maximum sustainable output, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Let’s say you have a big project you’re working on, and you just have to finish it on time at any cost. You can certainly put forth a tremendous effort and send your productivity through the roof. You can put other things on hold, drink lots of caffeine, and burn the candle at both ends, achieving far more than you normally would. But what goes up must come down.

After you burn out and come crashing down, you’ll have to pay the price with a period of reduced productivity. Maybe you’ll need to take some time off to recover, or maybe you’ll be less motivated to work efficiently, or maybe you’ll be scared off from attempting a project of that magnitude for a long while. Unfortunately, you pay more during your crash than you gained during your productive period.

The ideal solution

If your productivity engine is too hot, you’ll eventually crash and burn. If it’s too cold, you’re doing less than you’re capable of, and leaving output on the table. The way you stay the most productive in the long run is by consistently working at your maximum sustainable output, that magical “just right” level in between “too hot” and “too cold.”

Make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew, since you’ll have to pay for it later. At the same time, you don’t want to take on too little, or you’re letting your capabilities go to waste. If you have control over your work, be sure to keep your workload steady. If someone else determines your workload, be honest with them about how much you can handle. After all, if Goldilocks knew the difference between “too hot” and “too cold,” we should too.

Hunter Nuttall wants you to stop sucking and live a life of abundance. Visit his site to learn how to improve your life and your income.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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