Our professional lives are generally consumed by trying to make our processes more efficient to reduce waste and help increase the value we deliver to our customers. Our personal lives are similarly consumed by trying to find time on our busy schedules to take care of chores, have meaningful time with the family, or to simply take a breath. We are always in search of new tools and methods to make us more efficient, but the more time we find the more we find to fill it.
In an essay in The Wall Street Journal a month ago, Oliver Burkeman describes how “Escaping the Efficiency Trap” is more difficult and nuanced than we might expect.
The general principle in operation here is what we might call the “efficiency trap.” Rendering yourself more efficient—either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits. Far from getting things done, you’ll be creating new things to do.
Burkeman posits that instead of continually struggling to create more efficiency we should become more accepting of the anxiety of inefficiency, and learn how friction and inefficiency expose value – or the lack thereof.
Convenience, in other words, makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable in any given context.
Perhaps an analogue is the danger of automation. In the lean world we know that automation can hide wasteful processes and computers can hide the real meaning of data. We learn to first analyze processes and data in manual ways to create better understanding. Only after we break down, improve, and standardize processes – usually multiple times – will we apply automation.
In fact, Burkeman cites a similar example of phone apps that help us create an illusion of more control: knowing where family members are, managing multiple calendars, compiling travel reservations, and so forth. We need some level of discomfort so that we’re aware of and understand what is happening. Using cash instead of Apple Pay is less efficient, but you may think twice about a purchase. Having to call a family member to see where they are is more difficult and time-consuming than simply seeing their location on an app, but there is connection and context in the call.
Smoothness, it turns out, is a dubious virtue, since it’s often the unsmoothed textures of life that make it livable.
One final point that Burkeman only briefly touches on is that when we do create more efficiency and time, we need to be better about how we fill it. He quotes Jim Benson saying that as we become more efficient we become “a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations.” Instead, we should apply some personal hoshin planning and kata. What are our individual core principles? How do those translate into our long-term goals, nearer-term objectives, and experiments we’re running to work toward those objectives? With that in mind, how are we filling our time?
Working to become more efficient is great, but recognize the value of some level of inefficiency and friction. When we do become more efficient, be judicious and intentional with how the extra time is used.