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The Goldilocks Strategy for Choosing the Perfect Workload

The Student Work Saturation Point

Tasting Porridge…

The hardest part of building a quality student lifestyle is figuring out how much stuff you should be doing. Some students are clearly slackers. And some are clearly grinds. But for everyone else, especially those trying to follow the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy, a nagging question lurks: how do I know if I’m doing the right amount of classes and activities?

In this post I want to discuss a simple approach for designing an optimal workload. I call it the Goldilocks Strategy for obvious reasons: we’re looking for the proverbial work porridge that tastes just right.

To understand this strategy, however, we must first touch base with the reality of how our workload interacts with both our impressiveness and our stress…

The Work Saturation Point

Consider the graph at the top of this post. I’ve plotted two lines. The blue line represents your impressiveness and the red line represents your stress level. As you move from left to right, this represents an increase in your workload (both academic and extracurricular). Therefore, the graph shows how both your impressiveness and stress change as your workload increases.

(This graph, of course, is not displaying actual quantities, it instead visualizes a general trend that I often observe in students.)

Let’s start by considering the impressiveness line. At first, as you increase your workload, your impressiveness increases. Eventually this increase stops and you enter an unstable plateau. After a while the line takes a nose dive.

I call the workload where the impressiveness stops increasing the work saturation point. For every obligation (be it class or activity), there is a certain number of hours you must spent to handle that obligation well. The work saturation point is when the number of hours required by your obligations fills the total number of hours you can reasonably devote to working.

As you push your workload past this point, you start having to cut back on the quality of your work — your performance in classes suffer and your presence at activities diminishes. For a while, the result is a rough balancing act: you might get a little more impressiveness for increasing the amount of things you’re involved with (though, as we discuss here, not too much of an increase), but this is counterbalanced by your performance degrading. This period is represented by the unstable plateau on the graph.

Eventually, your workload because so high that you began to crash. You fail tests. You flake out on your activities altogether. (e.g.: Leena). At this point you’ve entered burnout mode, and your impressiveness takes a nose dive.

The stress line, on the other hand, stays at the same low level until around the work saturation point. Basically, whether we have one hour of work per week, or 30, so long as it’s a number that we can easily handle, our stress remains low.

As you might expect, after we pass the work saturation point and have to start making sacrifices in the quality of our work, and also begin to work later, harder hours, our stress increases. By the time we begin the crash and burn stage, our stress has sky rocketed to painful levels.

The Goldilocks Strategy

The work saturation point captures two things: it is where your impressiveness stops growing and where your stress begins to rise. Adding work beyond the work saturation point is pointless. It won’t boost your impressiveness and it will increase your stress (the porridge is too hot!). On the other hand, if you keep your workload well short of the work saturation point, your impressiveness is lower than it could be (the porridge is too cold!).

This gives us our strategy:

The Goldilocks Strategy: construct a workload that comes as close as possible to your work saturation point.

This strategy requires you to identify when you’ve reached your work saturation point. Let’s review some practical tips:

  1. You’re beyond your work saturation point if:
    • You have an hour or less of free time on most days.
    • You require late nights to finish papers or exam studying.
    • You complete almost all assignments the day before they are due.
    • You spend most nights in at least one meeting.
    • You frequently fail to follow through on activity related obligations.
    • You don’t really understand a lot of what is going on in your classes until you study right before the exam.
  2. You’re not yet at your work saturation point if:
    • You’re frequently bored.
    • You often create busy work for yourself to feel occupied (needlessly complicated note-taking and organization, excessive internet research and e-mailing for your activities, etc.)
    • You spend an embarrassing fraction of your time online.

Improving the Impressiveness of your Work Saturation Point

Some students are unhappy with the impressiveness level obtained when their workload hits their saturation point. Here’s the key: The solution is not to add more work. As we saw in the graph, this will not increase your impressiveness.

Instead, you have two options. You can find a way to shift your saturation point to the right (in effect, increasing the amount of work that you can handle with the fixed number of hours available to you) or shift the impressiveness line higher (in effect, increasing the impressiveness generated per hour of work invested.)

Let’s review both options…

Option #1: Shifting Your Saturation Point to the Right

To shift your saturation point you must decrease the number of hours required to handle your courses well. The secret: make your study skills more efficient. (Duh.) If you’re lost about how to get started, take a stroll through the Study Tips and Student Productivity topics of this blog.

Option #2: Shifting Your Impressiveness Curve Higher

To shift your impressiveness curve higher you must increase the impressiveness generated by the activities in your workload. We’ve discussed this feat often here on Study Hacks. Check out the Zen Valedictorian topic or read these articles on activity innovation and this article on focus.


You can’t always work your way to more impressiveness. Once you’ve hit your work saturation point, adding more work will only increase your stress; it won’t make you more impressive. In fact, it will eventually make your crash and burn.

My message is simple: follow the Goldilocks strategy. Identify your work saturation point and never exceed it. Once there, if you still desire more, try the techniques suggested above to shift the point to the right and the impressiveness line higher. Whatever you do, however, resist the urge to blindly pile more on.

That porridge is just too damn hot…

3 thoughts on “The Goldilocks Strategy for Choosing the Perfect Workload”

  1. Great post. I don’t think I’m at my saturation point yet. I only take one class every four weeks and work comes around every once in a while, but it’s not an extraneous load. I’m overcomplicating my notes right now, actually. I typed them, crossed referenced with my textbook, Westlaw’s contract database, ABA, I also added footnotes and diagrams. It seems pretty helpful right now. I don’t usually study because I hate my “note-taking” handwriting; it makes my classmates wonder how I do so well. If I’m bored or stressed I burn out.I usually play Grand Theft Auto(The ultimate Driver’s Ed, IMO) and things balance out.


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