Our dangerous obsession with efficiency

Appeal to efficiency is instinctive, seems right, and is immediately rewarded.

Efficiency is also dangerous and soul-destroying. Resilience, safety, health, beauty, love, and life all come from systems that don’t run out of resources, that have unused left overs. The very best bits are the bits we don’t get paid for. The most amazing insights and product ideas come from teams who are put in situations that give them time to think and things to think about.

We hear all the time about productivity gains, efficiency tips, saving time, saving money. It’s easy to end up compulsively chasing some ideal of efficiency. A common objection to the introduction of some governance or security controls is that it’s wasting resources: time, attention, money.

A system running at 100% efficiency or utilization cannot absorb changes, cannot overcome a fluctuation in supply, cannot handle someone calling in sick or a flight being delayed or pausing to tie your shoe or hug a puppy. It is brittle and disgusting. Asking to remove toil or repetitive mind-numbing tasks is far more reasonable than the pursuit of efficiency.

  • is it waste when we arrive a few minutes early and calmly contemplate our appointment?
  • is it waste when the plane has fuel left over after the flight?
  • is it waste when we have wood for the stove left over at the end of the winter?
  • is it waste when we read poetry instead of doing billable work on Sunday morning? How about Thursday morning?
  • is it waste when companies pay employees to work on community volunteer projects?
  • is it waste when a team goes to an offsite meeting to work out strategies and plans for the upcoming year?
  • is it waste when there is paint left over in the tube after the art is completed?
  • is it waste when the hospital didn’t use all of the flu shots before the season ended?
  • is it waste when there are more sunrises left in the universe than we can ever see?
  • is it waste that only a small percentage of the suns energy reaches the earth?
  • is it waste when we go for a walk around the park to exercise?
  • is it waste when we read books from other fields?
  • is it waste to take dance classes, flying lessons, cooking courses, learn another language, or start a YouTube channel?

Can you think of an example when you made a great leap forward due to having time to pause and think rather than efficiently and mindlessly churning through your TODO list?

I’d love to hear about it. Hit reply and tell me the story - if you have time.

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