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How Efficiency is Killing You 

Posted on Thursday, October 1, 2015 at 04:26PM by Registered CommenterLon Langston | Comments Off

As I write, I am doing laundry. Because we just got home from vacation and everyone had a bunch of laundry to do, there was no unused flat surface on which to sort and stack my stuff. So I folded each piece and dropped it into the basket, without rhyme or reason. The result was a basket with towels, t-shirts, underwear, shorts, socks, etc. stacked in no particular order. This made for terrible inefficiency at the other end of the process, where there’s a drawer or shelf for everything and everything in its place.  

I’m a business guy. And even more than that, I’m a business guy who used to own a production plant. In production the game is efficiency. Flow and process are continually evaluated and tweaked, to get the greatest throughput – to produce the most widgets, for the least expense.  

Stephen Covey’s 7th Habit was “Sharpen the Saw” – stop working long enough to improve your skills. When it comes to improving our minds, complexity and variety sharpen the saw. Efficiency does not. Efficiency is great. It makes life easy and lucrative, in the short term.  In the long term, however, efficiency kills our ability to sharpen the saw. 

Driving to work the same way every day – the fastest way – makes perfect sense. Parking in the same spot, eating at the same lunch restaurants, with the same people, is not only efficient; it’s comfortable.  But rote and routine do not stimulate neurogenesis. Efficiency does not make us smarter. Efficiency eliminates the complexity and challenge our brains need to thrive.

Inefficiency can also be useful in leadership. A work situation in which a subordinate is expected to just execute on the bosses orders is efficient. But that efficiency can prevent good ideas from surfacing and cover up issues that will eventually have a negative impact. I had lunch with a client today who told me about his intentionally inefficient leadership style. He said, if someone is expected to just do what he is told, any problems he may have get trampled. And any better solutions he may have get ignored.

I just got an email from the vendor of some productivity software I use imploring me to “Build a process to manage everyday tasks then find the time to tackle the things that really matter.”  It sounds logical to use efficiency, in the form of a process, to free up time for the important stuff. Almost everyone uses some kind of productivity hack. The simplest (and probably most effective) is the basic task list. The value of a task list (or other productivity process) is to insure that mundane stuff gets done. It does not, however, make our brains better. I use a task list. I also coach my clients to create a Daily Habits Checklist. But the purpose is not efficiency; its effectiveness. Cognitive resources are finite. We can only focus on a limited number of things and only for a limited amount of time.  Productivity tools and processes free up cognitive resources for real thinking: problem-solving, creativity, innovation.  

Efficiency kills, because it makes us less engaged, less effective and less fulfilled. The good news is it’s a kind of cognitive delayed gratification. If we are willing to sacrifice efficiency for complexity, now, we just may get super-efficiency, as a byproduct of having super-effective brains, later.  

When I put the laundry away, I had to make several trips to the different shelves and drawers. I don’t think that made my brain much better. But the whole laundry inefficiency thing did make my brain work to write this post.