There’s a very good chance this simple curve is the most important thing you’ll see on the internet today. The concept of the U-Curve (inverted from the actual letter in most cases) is one of the most persistent and useful models for understanding and maximizing our personal and professional lives. It’s bonkers how many things fall under this simple framework.
The idea is this: most things or behaviors have a benefit, but the more you use or engage in them, at a certain point, those benefits start to decline. From a health perspective, this applies to everything from ice cream and sunshine, to exercise and sleep. These things can all be great, but only up to a point. Eventually everything starts to slide back down the curve, even things we think are good for us. Too much sun burns our skin. Too much exercise breaks down our bodies. Too much sleep destroys our mental health … and too much dairy makes us unpopular at dinner parties.
“Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess, and the other of deficiency.”
There are three distinct ways that the concept of the U-Curve can help us improve our professional lives. We’ll start with the simplest one first, and that is understanding the far side of the curve.
The far side of the U-Curve is the one that gets the most attention. This slope represents the fact that more is not always better, and leaders across all industries are finally starting to see the truth in this basic statement.
Hustle Culture and short-term capitalists have done a great job of inventing the myth that there’s a benefit to always doing more. Work more hours, make more widgets, have more side gigs, say yes to everything … because more is better, right? Unfortunately, we’re starting to see exactly where this mindset leads. The ubiquity of burnout in ourselves and our economy, from quiet quitting to climate change, highlights the glaring flaws in this short-term approach.
Here are some specific examples of what this looks like in our professional lives:
- Leadership – Providing direction and support to your team is amazing. But when it falls off the curve into micromanagement, your people can start to lose agency and disengage with the project. Too much involvement from leaders in the day-to-day responsibilities of the team causes a loss of productivity and personal fulfillment.
- Work Ethic – Showing up consistently and going above and beyond when needed is laudable. But when it falls off the curve into burnout, teams can start to feel hopeless. In the end, working too much stifles creativity and destroys motivation.
- Inventory Management – Here’s a recent example for you shippers out there that will hopefully make the point crystal clear. Having inventory on hand to quickly fulfill your customers’ orders is the dream. But when it falls off the curve into overstock, a glut of inventory can very quickly cut into profits. Having too much inventory on hand can lead to storage fees, depreciation or spoilage, depending on the items.
Simply put, more is not always better. Take the lesson from the U-Curve and pull yourself back from micromanagement and burnout before it’s too late.
The other part of the graph, the first curve, is equally important, but much less popular. Even taking today’s professional productivity fetish into consideration, the consequences of doing more are easy to understand. The first curve, the consequences of doing less, are slightly less intuitive.
The first curve illustrates two points. For starters, it means that sometimes, showing up is not enough. Sadly, success is not measured by the simple fact that you tried, but how you tried. Reaching the results portion of the U-Curve may take more effort than you initially thought.
In the logistics world, this fact can be seen in a few different areas. It’s not enough to partner with a new technology provider. You have to spend the time and resources to manage the implementation, and ensure your team is actually using the new BI tools. It’s not enough to have contracts with multiple carriers. You have to spend the time and resources on a TMS that actually lets your team choose the least cost option. The same can be said for ERPs, CRMs, and any other three-letter software tools: to get a ROI, to rise up the curve, you must invest the time and resources on the front end.
The final lesson from the curve is perhaps the most difficult. In today’s logistics world though, where we need new solutions and processes more than ever, it’s also the most important. That’s why we wanted to save it for last.
So many leaders, and businesses in general, strive for the peak of the U-Curve. They want to come up with the perfect process for their team to follow, or the perfect solution for their customers. And that’s admirable. There’s nothing wrong with striving to put your best effort out there. But just like with hiking, we can’t let the summit distract us from everything that comes before it. Trying to always achieve the optimal level is a great way to ensure you actually achieve nothing.
There’s a concept from the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear, called Motion versus Action. Motion is when we’re doing things, but not actually achieving anything. Having meetings, reviewing data, checking inboxes, getting another quote … these can all be examples of Motion. While these things can be important, they’re steppingstones on the path to our real goal.
Action is getting that real goal done. Launching a new product, making a sale, improving a process, solving a customer’s problem … these are all examples of Action. The difference being that at the end of these steps, something has changed (hopefully for the better).
Staying in Motion towards the peak of the U-Curve can make us feel like we’re making progress, but it’s an illusion. Taking Action, even imperfect action (because ultimately that’s the only kind of action available to us), is the only way to create change and keep moving forward. No matter if it’s perfect, better than before will always be, at the very least, better.
Lessons from the Curve
The U-Curve is a profound and powerful framework for today’s professional world. It provides us with three important concepts to remember:
- More is not always better.
- Showing up may not be enough.
- Better is always better.
These three concepts can help us avoid micromanagement and burnout, and ensure we’re moving our teams forward.
Unfortunately though, it looks like our teachers were right. Geometry does come in handy in the real world …