The Misguided Worship of Efficiency


"We are allowing ourselves to be ever-more entranced by the unsifted trivia of life. To value a split-focus life…is above all to squeeze out potential time and space for reflection, which is the real sword in the stone needed to thrive in a complex, ever-shifting new world. In the name of efficiency, we are diluting some of the essential qualities that make us human." -Maggie Jackson

In my last job as an employee, I acted as a sort of efficiency steward for a team of HR professionals. I partnered with them to understand their workflows and find ways to help them do more work, better work, and at a faster rate. I really enjoyed it. My work felt rewarding, I could see the benefits of my efforts, and it was fun to piece together new processes.

Looking back, however, I see that I missed so many opportunities for a deeper understanding - an understanding that could have allowed me to create a solution that actually stuck for that team. Instead, I forced the implementation of a software system that the team mostly hated. Are they able to do more, better, faster with this new system? Maybe, but I know I could have offered a better solution if I'd taken more time to truly understand their work and how they wanted to be more efficient.

Worshipping efficiency in fields like manufacturing, where much of the work is done by machines, makes sense. Worshipping efficiency when humans are doing the work, though? I'm not so sure. Not only do we lose depth, richness, and nuance, we also kid ourselves by thinking that we can actually be efficient in today's workplace.

Point #1: It's nearly impossible to be highly efficient in our organizations today. Efficiency - meaning the ability to accomplish something with minimal wasted time or effort - requires an ability to focus deeply and without constant distraction, which we all know is often impossible in our modern workplaces. We bought into the idea that doing lots of things at once meant we were being efficient, but studies have shown that multi-tasking can actually makes you less efficient and less effective. We would all be more productive if we would just allow ourselves to focus on one task at a time.

We're expected to instantly respond to emails, calls, and chats. We're bombarded with visits to our desk or the sounds of conversations taking place next door. Our brains are forgetting how to be wholly absorbed in a topic, and we all think we have ADHD. If I'm not diligent enough about "shutting off" when I write or need to do something else that takes focus, I can hardly get through 10 minutes without some kind of ping from a device or urge to see what's going on in social media. It's no wonder it takes us so long to do things well in this day and age!

The next time you feel bad about not being "efficient enough," I would encourage you to push back against the workplace culture that asks you to be available every second of your workday. I would also encourage you to practice minimizing distractions in your downtime so that your brain can re-learn how to focus and concentrate.

Point #2: Efficiency can only take us so far. Increased efficiency in our lives can free up time to do the things that we enjoy or that intrigue us, but it isn't the end of the story. There can be a lot to gain by being inefficient. For example, it makes me nuts when my sweetie is driving and won't take the most direct route to where we're going; but then we stumble upon new parts of the city or our neighborhood that I've never seen before, and the little detours actually become something to appreciate. Sure, we might be a few minutes late to wherever we're going, but getting lost exposes us to new places and deepens our understanding of where we are.

We can let the machines worry about the efficiency needs in our lives. What will really set organizations and candidates apart in this new world of work is an ability to focus deeply, learn quickly, and appreciate nuance. It's time for us and our workplaces to value going deeper, even when it's messy or seemingly "inefficient." If we don't nurture what makes us different from machines - our ability to understand complex ideas, emotions, and create new ways of being - how will we move ahead in this new digital age?

If you're interested in nurturing the part of you that can think deeply, enrich ideas, and go a step farther than efficiency can, here are 3 things I'm practicing in my own life that seem to be working:

  1. Make time for reflection. You cannot build off of what you experience today without chewing on, writing about, or wrestling with it. So many of us skip reflection in the pursuit of the next exciting or familiar thing, which robs us of the deep understanding that we need in this new world of work.
  2. Stay open. Our brain's left hemisphere looks for information that confirms what it already knows to be true. Our right hemisphere, on the other hand, is much more open to new understanding. Seek ideas that are different from the ones you already have. Do something creative in order to reap the benefits of what your right hemisphere has to offer.
  3. Allow yourself to be absorbed. When was the last time that you really got into the flow with something? When have you lost track of time? Do more of that. When you allow yourself to really focus (read: phone off, email chimes silenced, all 19 internet tabs closed), it becomes much easier to focus over time. Think of your ability to concentrate as a muscle and oscillate between periods of intense focus and relaxation.

I'll leave you with a quote that I love from Winifred Gallagher:

"Paying rapt attention, whether to a trout stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer, increases your capacity for concentration, expands your inner boundaries, and lifts your spirits, but more important, it simply makes you feel that life is worth living."

Know someone who's tired of hearing about efficiency? Consider passing this post on to them!