I can't believe I wrote the original on this just about four years ago. It's been a long strange trip, indeed. So here is the original post, with some edits and updated thoughts.
One of the hardest things to learn is how one’s effort translates into output. I don’t say finished product/paper/grant, because they seldom are. In the words of one of my most wonderful mentors: Scientific papers are never finished, they are merely abandoned to publication. Get over it. Move on. Things are not complete. This was one of the hardest lessons for me, and I find for many trainees to learn. When to turn things without a deadline in. It is one of the hardest things, I think, for pre-tenure faculty. But that's the point of this post.
The graph below is the best way I’ve come up with explaining this. First, energy into anything (be it making dinner or writing a grant) is never linear. Get over that. Some things have a huge start up cost in time (line A – pink with the flat start). Lots goes in, little comes out, till you hit a point where it takes off. This is learning MatLab or mastering the basic knowledge in a new area.
Some tasks have a more gradual rise, (line B, blue). This could be learning surgical techniques. Note this line takes forever to get close to the asymptote. There’s a reason its called an asymptote. One never quite reaches the black dotted line of perfection, 100%. Get over that, too. Other projects start going right away (line C, green), perhaps doing a different version of an experiment that has been done before. They rise gradually, but at any amount of effort in they have more out put than lines A&B.
One key to success is understanding which of these (or other) lines any project is. The other is (repeat after me): it's not linear. It's not linear. It's not linear.
The next point is that where you stop on any of these curves is a function of what the task is, and its importance to you, not necessarily the shape of the curve.
If its a grant, trying for stopping point 1 on the graph is probably a good idea. If its an experimental technique, then being good enough (ie not killing the animal, getting a functional electrode in place), position 2 might be sufficient, that extra perfection will not impact on the results. Yes your stitching isn’t perfect, but does it need to be?
In my view, committee work, picking out kid’s clothes for the day, or choosing a type of pencil, stopping point 3 is probably more than one needs. Did you show up, are they dressed and does it write? Of course there are pencil fanatics who would disagree.
Which raises the final point: where one stops on this curve is an individual decision. And your stopping point may not be someone else's stopping point for the same task, the same grant mechanism, the same Important Paper.
But remember: if one tries to push everything to stopping point 1, nothing will reach that stopping point, and there will be lots of things stalled or finished at 3 that one would prefer were at least 2’s. Deciding where you are on the effort out axis can be hard. And while you may be able to estimate with some accuracy how much effort in you've devoted to the project, that is valuable only in the context of the shape of the curve.