**This is part of a series of posts where I call out some ideas from the latest edition of The Strategic Review (written by Sebastian Marshall), and give some prompts and questions that I think people might find useful to answer. I include a summary of the most recent edition, but it's not a replacement for reading the actual article. Sebastian is an excellent writer, and your life will be full of saddness if you don't read his piece. The link is below.

The Strategic Review Background Ops #4: Value Producing Work


  • Odds are a lot of any given process in your life has a fair amount of waste in it.
  • One can often significantly increase their output by making reducing the waste in an existing process that you already sink time into.
  • Toyota is worth studying independantly?
  • Walking to the sandwich shop is not the essential good part of getting a sandwich (unless, of course, it is).
  • Though this approach can seem like it will increase stress, a more streamlined life helps reduce stress.
  • The process
    • Take action out of the background.
    • Completely explicate it.
    • What are the unessential steps that don’t have to be there?
  • Be hardcore
    • Start with high standards, then gradually work towards meeting them.
    • Be skeptical that anything you’re doing adds value.

Eliminate waste. Pretty solid directive. It’s almost tautologically a good thing. It seems like the easiest way to run into trouble is to be caught up in thinking about the symbolic representation of waste, and not the actual thing.

Eliminating things from your life because they match the symbolic representation of waste can do you a lot of harm. I’m an undergrad in engineering, and I know a lot of people who operate as if they’ve decided that sleep is a waste of their time. I doubt that many of them are actually genetic freaks whose peak performance comes at 5 hours of sleep each night.

Think of waste in a pure sense, an activity, motion, or effort that does not serve your values. This requires having a solid grasp on what you value.

The most interesting part of thinking about waste to me, is thinking about the edge cases. Things that seem to be wasteful, but a part of you argues that there is a key part that you really do value. These cases are a great oppurtunity to ask yourself, “Is there a way to get a more direct supply?”

See if you can break apart the pieces of a given activity and figure out what parts give you value and how. Once you’ve determined what is the “essential goodness” you get from the activity, are there other ways to directly access that goodness?

So try out this process.

  1. What is something you do that you enjoy but that you suspect hides some waste?
  2. What is the “essential goodness” there?
  3. Is there a better way to get your daily does of said goodness?

Here are some examples in my past:

  • I used to be okay with doing my school work with and around other people because I wanted to be social. At some point, I realized that if I worked alone without distraction, I could get my work done about 30% faster, and then could use that time to spend with people when the focus was enjoying each other's company. So I did that.
  • I used to listen to lyrical music while I did homework, even though I knew that I was distracted more by music with lyrics than without. At some point I couldn’t justify it to myself and switched to always going with lyricless music. Still haven’t gotten around to making more space for “just listening to music” though.

Examples of things I just investigated:

  • Every so often I catch myself checking various blogs to see if there has been an update. I definitely should get an RSS feed (just added action to todoist)
  • Every so often I catch myself on facebook, normally with the story, “Oh, maybe someone cool has posted something.” I should take some time to go through my feed and unfollow and cull as many lacklustre inputs as possible (probably should follow something like this).
  • Sometimes I have to go far out of my way to find a water fountain to drink at. Also, something about water fountains always makes me stop drinking before I’m satiated. Normally I tell myself I can’t use a water bottle because my backpack is too small. I should get a carabiner and attach a water bottle to one of the loops on the back.

Take 5 min and see if can get any gains from this.


  • What should you do if you don’t have introspective access to what you really get out of an activity?
  • What’s something in your life that you suspect hides a lot of waste, but you aren’t sure about how to improve?
  • Is there such a thing as “an acceptable level of waste”?
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Nice summary.

> Is there such a thing as “an acceptable level of waste”?

That xkcd chart, "How long can you work on making a routine task more efficient before you're spending more time than you save," is relevant. I'd even argue you can greatly exceed the amount of time "to break even" because you get back recurring wasteful time during the most busy week of your life — presumably that's an important week — and can reduce waste through design during a week without much going on.

Also, the general skill of reducing waste and streamlining is very valuable.

Finally, I think a cursory 80/20 pass on this is quite valuable for one's personal life (most people waste a lot of unnecessary time each week that causes no utility or joy, and can be reclaimed surprisingly easily)... but the gains become even larger in complex organizations, especially business, but really all organizations. As organizations grow in size, the ratio of value-producing work to non-value producing tends to get much worse very quickly.

Working on an organizational level, it's almost essential to study and reduce waste regularly and routine if you're growing on any axis — number of customers, numbers of product/services, scope of mission, size of team, different types of software/hardware/tools deployed, etc, etc.

Of course, "100% value-producing work and true leisure" is a dream, it can't never be finally reached. But I think it's not a bad target to sketch out idealistically, but then only approach it pragmatically and balance the costs of waste-reduction against just doing whatever else appeals at the moment or makes sense.


The point about breaking even before you break even is super important and I think is often missed. If you can take X hours now to save X hours later, that's break-even in hours, but by default it's a huge win because some of the time you get back will be when time is of the essence.

Firmly agreed.

Also, for the typical person into self-improvement, you can safely assume your time is going to to be substantially more valuable in the future than it is right now, so long as right now isn't very leveraged for some reason.

Appreciated this a lot, in particular the bit about not cutting the symbolic representation of waste.

I think these posts could use more in the beginning remindering reeaders what The Strategic Review is and encouraging people to actually read the article first (the summary is good but doesn't replace reading the original IMO). For example, although using "TSR" instead of "The Strategic Review" in the title makes sense for brevity-concerns, once you get to the article I'd spell it out.

Good idea, just added it. I'll probably make a nicer intro for future posts.