Monday, May 26, 2008

Assuming that every bit counts is a recipe for failure, whatever your goal is (including helping the environment)

When you have goals you want to achieve, being satisfied as long you're doing something that's working towards them is a recipe for failure.

Unless you think about priorities and how much tasks will really contribute, it's easy to just feel good about doing something, and it's always tempting to do the easier or more urgent things. Every little bit helps, right?

But not really. You have to have the right priorities. What matters is how much a task contributes. Tasks will differ in how much they contribute to the goals, and there's almost always an unlimited number of trivial tasks you can occupy all your time with. Time can easily fly by, without you having achieved anything of substance.

Sometimes tasks may seem to meaningfully contribute, but in fact really not at all. They might just be addressing symptoms of a deeper problem. As long as that deeper problem remains, the symptoms will continue to arise for you to work on, and you'll end up on an endless treadmill. Really tackling the problem means going for its deeper source.

This doesn't only apply to individuals and their personal, study or work goals. It applies anytime there's any goal to be achieved. Consider the goal of helping the environment. How many times do you hear it said that “every little bit counts”?

Yes, in some trivial sense every little bit is doing something. But is it doing anything really useful? Is it just addressing symptoms, and putting us on an endless treadmill?

The point is, it's really important for us to consider what our priorities should be. We need to think about what actually does and doesn't help, and to what extent things help, so we can know how we should distribute our time.

But I feel that thoughts about the environment don't really get into considering such matters, and tend to be mired in a warm and fuzzy "every little bit counts" view.

Perhaps you think that this is all well and good when it comes to governments and companies, but for the person on the street, all they can do is the little things, so for them it truly is a matter of ‘every little bit counts’.

If you think that, then by all means, have a look at what the person on the street might be able to do, and the relative values of these options. And if you find that there truly aren't any real diffrences between the options, and every little bit really does count, let us know. It's an important question, and a proper answer -- whatever it is -- would do us all good.


  1. Hi James,
    There is a time to live and a time to die. Time to sow and time to reap. All things in their own time.

    See my PhD on Value Management (,
    Best Wishes
    Richard Ferrers

  2. Hi Richard,
    Nice to hear from you, it's been a while. Thanks for the link, I'll have a look. I'm still working at my PhD as well. Hope the conference is good.

  3. James,
    Understand your point, but disagree;
    Look at the water-saving campaign launched in Qld 2 years ago.
    Brisbane is now considered the most water-saving community in the developed world (,23739,22318397-3102,00.html)
    Obviously, before you say it, the campaign (the big thing) was the really important part, not any individual using a 1/2 flush or watering with their gray water.
    My folks have always used tank water and that really makes no difference on a big scale.
    But everyone doing it does make a difference.
    That, i think, is what is meant by the the "every bit counts" expression.
    Additionally, the philosophy of doing your bit (while working as described above), also creates the awareness in people of the issue - and that is a really really important thing.
    And yes, a TV campaign telling everyone to do something (if successful) is better than my gran telling me she reuses her gray water - but now because she does, I reuse mine too and so on; and culture is perhaps not always driven, but certainly is molded, by all of us individuals doing our bit.
    And now I'm repeating myself...

  4. Hi Kris,

    Appreciate the comments.

    Little bits can add up, like small individual savings of water multiplied by a whole population. But just because it happens in some cases doesn't mean it always does.

    I think that 'little bits' are often ineffective or even counterproductive.

    So my point is that you can't just assume that every little bit always helps.

    As to creating awareness, I agree that it can do that and that can be a good thing. But you always have to ask, is it going to be the most effective way of doing that, and are there going to be any negative consequences, in this situation, of instilling an attitude of 'every little bit counts'.

    And just a clarification about what I’m /not/ saying. I’m not contrasting ‘individuals doing little bits on their own intiatives’ with higher-level approaches to getting whole groups (like whole populations) to do their little bits. I’m saying that some tasks are ineffecitve or actively counter-productive, even though they might appear to be making a small difference.