Always Be Aware of ROI

Always Be Aware of ROI
This post was previously published. It has been updated.

One of the fundamental concepts taught in my last year in engineering school had to do less with “can it be done” and more with “should it be done.” These lessons encompassed ethics and a concept lifted from the business school: Return On Investment or ROI.

But ROI is not just about engineering or business profits. It’s not simply about the dollars returned for the dollars spent. It also has to do with effort, and should be a fundamental consideration for every task you undertake.

In our economy where time and attention are a precious resource, we have to make sure that we get the best return on the investment. We need to make sure we get the biggest return for the time and effort we put in.

Moving Away From Our Parent’s Attitudes

My parents and my grandparents lived in a very different age. They always had plenty of time to take care of things that came up.

My grandfather, a farmer by trade, was always tinkering with things on the farm. He repaired, modified, and reused everything he could. His garden was huge, and he raised his own meat and eggs. Buying something was a last resort.

My mother, who did not work outside the home, made all our food from scratch. This included bread, noodles, sauces, and a vast variety of food she “put up” every summer to last us through the winter. She made clothes. She knitted my scarves, hats and mittens. And she always could come up with a way to make decorations with a bit of odds and ends and some time.

I live in a very different world. In our era, time is our money, and we have to be very careful not to spend it without getting something significant back.

The Printer Experience

There was a time when my daughter complained to me about how the printer wasn’t printing clearly anymore. That was partially true – if you fiddled with the settings, you could get it to print fine.

But one Saturday afternoon as I sat in my office, I thought, I should see if I can fix the issue. So I cleaned the nozzles. I re-aligned the print head. I deep cleaned the nozzles. It was still no better.

And then I googled how to clean this printer’s head. (I should have realized at this point I had reached the end of my expertise and moved on, but I was determined.)

After two fruitless hours, the printer was not working any better, and my hands were stained with ink. I decided to order a new print head.

The new print head cost $110. So spending up to two hours would be worth it.

Except that a brand new printer cost $60.

[Insert facepalm here]

I wasted three hours of my precious weekend trying to fix a device I ultimately replaced for $60. Trying to fix the printer was not a good return on my time investment.

How To Know If You May Not Be Getting ROI

Sadly, this is not the only time I have not gotten a good return on my time. The qualities passed down from the previous generations worked well in those times. But in an era when time is scarce and precious, these strategies are no longer in my best interest.

So how do you know if you are not getting a good ROI?

Lack of Skills

If you are struggling to do something because you don’t have the skills, you don’t have a good ROI. Your options in this case are to hire/barter with someone to do it, or learn the skills you need.

In this era of the interwebs, you can learn to do just about anything. But that doesn’t mean you should invest the time. How much time will you put in to learn the skill? And how often will you use it? Learning to do quick clothing repairs is something you can use throughout your life. Learning how to rewire a house is probably something you won’t do very often.

Lack of Time

If you ever say to yourself consistently during the middle of a task, “I don’t have time for this sh*t”, you are probably not getting a good ROI. Your options in this case are to delegate the task, hire someone, or lower the goal/expectations.

Lowering the goal or expectations can get the essential part of the task done, while leaving unimportant aspects undone. This is a direct application of the Pareto Principal: that 80% of the results come from 20% of the work. Do you really want to put in more effort for diminishing returns?

Lack of Joy

This last factor and its relationship was brought to my attention by my accountability partner when I floated the idea past her of giving up the podcast. She said that if I wasn’t getting a monetary ROI and there was no joy to make up for it, it was a good sign to let it go.

If you enjoy doing something and it is relaxation and recreation, then you are getting a good ROI. If you really dislike what you are doing, you are better off investing your time in other ways.

People find creative outlet in different ways. My husband builds things. My friend cooks (and makes improvements to recipes she finds.) I work with textiles (crocheting, knitting, cross-stitching) and blog. Another friend makes art quilts and scrapbooks.

Using Your Skills

I do want to throw in a warning that just because you have the skills, time and joy doesn’t guarantee a good ROI. Even if those skills can bring in a hefty income.

A good friend of my husband’s is an excellent woodworker. He’s got all the fancy equipment and turns out excellent furniture. He and my husband made the pulpit for our new church from the ground up.

This friend loves woodworking. He makes time for it and it brings him a lot of joy. And he is extremely skilled. He could make a lot of money with his hand-crafted pieces.

But it’s not a good enough ROI to become his main source of income. Why? Because he is an infectious disease doctor, and he works closely with the local medical school and the hospitals to limit post-operative infections.

Remember: just because something has an excellent ROI, it has to be taken in context of the rest of your life.

Places You Might Not Be Getting ROI

The thing about ROI is that you might not be aware of when you’re not getting a decent return. Particularly if the DIY impulse has been rooted in you since birth.

There are two main tactics to reducing those activities that have poor ROI: outsourcing and simplifying.


How much time do you spend shopping per week? Between grocery shopping, household goods, pet supplies and other errands, you probably lose a good chunk of time. This is great if you enjoy shopping and thrive on getting the best deals.

But for the rest of us, why not outsource this?

Most areas have a grocery store that will allow you to have someone do the shopping so all you have to do is pick up and take them home. If the grocery stores in my small hometown in northern Wisconsin are doing this, I suspect it is widespread. If not, there is always Amazon.

In addition, in the time of Covid, most business implemented an order online/pick up at the curb method. This can save a whole lot of time (and impulse purchases!)

Volunteer Positions

I know that in many organizations, if you give a little time, you find yourself drafted to give more. And it really feels grungy to suggest that maybe volunteering is not a good use of your time.

This is one area where you have to look carefully at the factors. Are you the best person for the position? What do you get out of it? Would your time and resources be better spent in a different way that would help the organization? Would your money be of more use than your time?

Maintenance Tasks

Ah, maintenance tasks. Things like laundry, housework, bill paying, taxes, yard work. All necessary tasks, but really poor ROI in the grand scheme of things. This is an area where if you can’t outsource it, you need to simplify it.

If you can’t get a lawn service, can you draft your teenager to cut the grass? Or maybe let the grass get longer between cuttings? If you can’t hire a housecleaner, can you make it easier for you to clean by getting rid of surface clutter and fussy furniture? Instead of cooking complicated meals, can you use a slow cooker or pressure cooker to speed things up?


In today’s world where time and attention are in short demand, we have to be careful on how we spend them. We need to get a good Return on Investment (ROI) for these resources. We can do this by looking at the circumstances that signal a poor ROI, like lack of skills, lack of time or lack of joy in the activity. We can get better ROI by outsourcing things like errands, reconsidering our volunteer commitments, and simplifying how we do maintenance tasks.

Action Item

Take a mental walk through your time in the past week. Did any of the activities exhibit the warning signs of a poor ROI? Figure out how to outsource or simplify the task, and do that this week.