The Little Roomba That Could; Or 5 Reasons Why Persistence Trumps Power

by Brad Isaac on March 3, 2008

roomba.jpgI was watching my Roomba making its rounds around my living room today when something occurred to me.

People always ask if Roombas work or not. Well, they do – but for reasons you probably wouldn’t expect.

You would think all the great reviews on Amazon are a result of the Roomba’s sheer sucking power. Can it suspend a bowling ball like an Oreck vacuum? Does it exert centrifugal forces greater than 100,000 times those of gravity – like a Dyson?

The answer to both questions is a resounding no.

The reason Roombas work is more like the saying A broken clock is right twice a day…

First, in this context, let’s break down some of the disadvantages of throwing power at a problem versus the Roomba strategy…

4 Problems with Power:

1. Power costs massive energy up front - anyone remember “Shock and Awe?” The money, manpower, technology and explosive expenditure on that first night was enormous. Still, it didn’t do as expected. Only through the persistent advancement did Saddam’s regime fall. Even today, years later, massive power is not what is leading to success in the region…

2. Power can overshoot the target - Think about the last time you were angry at someone or they were angry at you. If you or she yelled then that would be overshooting the target. The desired outcome might be “put the cap back on the toothpaste.” But if screamed, you hurt the other person, risk them resenting you and you still might not get your wish. Whereas a Post-it with a gentle reminder “Please cap me!” attached to the toothpaste on a consistent basis will be a gentle reminder.

3. Power can undershoot the target - Have you ever used the massive power of your brain to “cram” for an exam? We’ve all run out of time before a test and tried to make up for lost time through cramming. And we’ve all likely done poorly on the exams as a result.

4. Unfocused power is messy - In trying to do something quickly through power, it can sometimes be messy. It can accomplish the objective so quickly you can’t keep up. A Corvette in the hands of a new driver can lead to a fishtail into a phone pole. The potential energy of matches in the hands of a young child can cause a house to burn down. That new computer you want that lets you double your productivity can make a mess of your checkbook. ;)

So if the Roomba isn’t relying on power to do the dirty work, then what is it?

Persistence. When I watch the Roomba work, it can get a little irritating to see it pass over a small spec of leaf without picking it up. The Oreck would likely have no trouble grabbing that spec on the first go, but the Roomba misses it. Yet, what happens is eventually, the Roomba does pick it up. It works on that spot then returns to it again from a different angle. Then it comes back again. From the North, South East and West, it attacks. Not with force or huge expenditures of power, but with a persistent leisurely scrubbing.

5 benefits of persistence:

1. Less heavy lifting - When you only apply power as a solution to a problem, be prepared to do some heavy lifting. Power costs money, it takes more initial energy and it usually sputters out quicker… If persistence is applied instead, you can take your time and still reach the same destination refreshed instead of sweaty and on the verge of a heart attack.

2. Positive habit formation - When you take a project like studying for an exam and spend 1 hour per day for 2 weeks studying, you are giving yourself a message – that consistent study is important. You are also building that as a habit. If instead, you try to put forth that 14 hours of study in 2 days, you are giving yourself a different message – that “study isn’t important” – “I can just wing it.” You are also more likely to do it again because it is a building block toward a habit.

3. Less roller coaster productivity - Have you ever known someone who only shoots for the stars? This type of person rests until they have their energy, then explodes with boundless energy untill they are exhausted. They might have some great successes that are short lived, but the time in between those triumphs is depressing. That’s what I mean by a roller coaster ride. If the same person put forth 1/2 of the energy on a daily basis their energy would be better managed, their positive habits would grow and they’d be more likely to achieve because they show up every day.

4. Consistent patterns of success - When I get a new project, I break it up into mini projects. From there, I take one of the mini projects and work on it until it’s done. My main goal is to complete that mini project 100%. Once I do that, I’m done for that day. Sure I could stay and get 2 mini projects knocked out, but then what’s left for tomorrow? Little successes every day are what build more happiness and satisfaction.

5. You don’t get bored - When you power-lift a project, then what? Do you rest and then power-lift another? That means dealing with days or weeks with nothing to do. Persistence is a consistent stream of actions that keep boredom away.

The idea behind this is that whatever mountains you want to move, you have a choice. You can put up the expense and energy of doing it quickly through a huge power expenditure and hope it’s done before the power expires… Or you can use persistence and move it stone by stone.

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March 4, 2008 at 3:24 pm

Great lesson from a vacuum cleaner.

Though I also see the lesson of being effective over efficient. The Roomba is more efficient than effective, it gets the job done but can take forever. You want something that will be more effective than efficient if you want quick results.
Effectiveness builds, efficiency maintains

March 4, 2008 at 9:11 pm

Consistent application and a disciplined approach wins in the long run — tortoise & the hair.

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