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January 31, 2013 / alipeles

7. Maintain good work habits, even when the payoff seems small

  • Small benefits become big ones when you collect them repeatedly
  • Best practices require the discipline of consistent application
  • “Bad luck” sometimes turns out to be bad habits


According to Jared Diamond, in his New York Times essay earlier this week, forest dwelling New Guineans refuse to sleep under dead trees.

Initial reaction? It sounds overly cautious, superstitious even. How likely can it be that a particular tree will fall on a particular night? But, long odds accrete into short odds when you play them repeatedly. Diamond’s New Guinean friends sleep in the forest every night. He does the math and concludes that if the odds of a dead tree falling on a specific night are 1 in a 1000, then the average forest dweller sleeping under dead trees would be crushed within about three years. The point, Diamond says, is that it’s important to be “attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.”

I see a broader principle here. Many actions confer little expected benefit when performed a single time, but being in the habit of performing them regularly confers great benefit. Skip one tooth brushing and your woes will begin and end with bad breath. But, allow your habit of brushing regularly to slide for long enough and you could be punished with severe dental and medical travails.

At work, we can usually get away with cutting a corner or two. But, habitually following best practices and proper procedures, taking notes, keeping good records, proofreading, double checking, and following up result in much higher quality work over the long run.

Of course, people with weak discipline rarely understand why so many things go wrong for them. They feel burned by “bad luck” saying, “Give me a break; it was a typo. It could have happened to anyone!” That’s partly true. It probably was a typo, a mistake that anyone could have made. But, careful people catch typos in important work, because they make a habit of checking every time.

If you think about it, what could be more “unlucky” than a tree falling on you in the night? Through good habits, the New Guinean forest dwellers manage to change their “luck”.

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