Portion Control via Vessel Size Is a Secret to Success and Happiness

A tip of the hat to Seth Godin for the title of today’s blog post.

Seth closed his Sunday blog post with that line, but before it, he used some examples to support his case. Here are some of those examples:

  • serving 4 ounces of wine in a beer stein would make it seem like you are getting shortchanged
  • closets are always just a bit too small to hold all our stuff
  • dieters have been show to eat less when they use smaller plates
  • lawyers working a 12-hour shift seem busy all day; they could probably get the same amount of work done in 8 hours, but since they have 12 hours available, they use it

Some of these examples even have a name, Parkinson’s law.

According to Wikipedia, Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, and the title of a book which made it well-known. Over the years, several corollaries to Parkinson’s law have developed:

  • If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.
  • Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.
  • Data expands to fill the space available for storage (similar to the closet example Seth uses above).

But we don’t need to fall victim to Parkinson’s law, to always feel the need for a larger vessel size.

A six ounce glass will hold four ounces of wine just as effectively as a 16 ounce glass, and not make us think that we are getting shortchanged.

If we start running out of space in our closet, or our hard drive, perhaps the best solution is to not want a bigger closet or bigger hard drive, but to get rid of clothes or date you no longer need.

If you set a deadline of eight hours to complete a project or a to-do list, you are giving yourself a real opportunity to do so; if you give yourself 12 hours, then you will likely use those extra four hours.

I’ve seen this with my students as well. If I tell students they can take two hours to complete a test, some students will complete it in a hour, but the vast majority will take the full two hours. I’m sure if I gave them 90 minutes, they would have done just as well.

And how many times have we gone out to eat, and eaten whatever the restaurant puts on our plate? If they had opted to put just 50-75% of that amount on our plate, we would have probably felt just as satisfied (and without having to loosen our belts afterwards). But the restaurant would have to be sure to use a smaller plate if they opt to make the serving size smaller, otherwise we may feel like we aren’t getting the most value for our dollar.

So my takeaway from Seth is that if we want to be successful and happy we need to use our resources such as time and capital wisely, by not thinking that more of such resources will make us happier or more successful, but that being grateful for such resources will.