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Why Efficiency is Overrated – and What to Do About It

An awful lot of time-management techniques show an obsession with efficiency. And being efficient – getting tasks done quickly – is certainly important. But efficiency for its own sake is worthless.

Sure, you could spend three hours implementing a new system that lets you automatically tag every email as it comes in. But I doubt that you’re going to look back in ten years’ time and say, “Wow, my inbox was always so well organized.”

If you pay too much attention to efficiency, you might actually become less effective. You’ll stop focusing on the things that really matter – the “great work” in your life, the projects that really would make a difference in ten years’ time.

Here’s how efficiency is damaging:

Playing the Numbers Game

Efficiency tends to reduce everything to numbers:

  • How many emails did you answer this morning?
  • How many words can you type per minute?
  • How long did you take to make those phone calls?

Now, I’ll be the first to agree that paying attention to metrics can help you with your time management. But not everything can be reduced to a number. For instance:

  • What about that long, heartfelt email from an old friend? Should you try to answer that in under two minutes?
  • What if you’re writing the copy for your company’s new product? Is it better to knock it out as fast as possible – or to take the time to make it really good?
  • How about that potential client who had a lot of questions? Should you cut them short to get all your calls done – or spend the time because you’re hoping that they’ll put in a big order?

Change It:

Cut yourself some slack, and remember that there are many situations that can’t be reduced to numbers. When you’re interacting with other people (clients, colleagues, friends or family), try to honor them as important and worthy of your time … don’t just think about the results you might get from them or the time that you’re spending.


Shying Away From Challenges

Becoming obsessed with efficiency can make us cowardly. If you’re focused on being as efficient as possible – getting through tons of work, never making mistakes – then you’ll be afraid to take on new challenges.

When we tackle something new, we might fail – or only partially succeed. We make mistakes, or do things badly. But this is how we learn and grow. Taking on that new project at work might give you the confidence to ask for a raise, chase a promotion or even change careers. Tackling something new at home – like learning to cook – might take time and involve some initial hiccups, but it could open up a whole new source of joy in your life.

Change It:

Try saying “Yes” to one new opportunity this week. Don’t dismiss it because you think it could be a waste of time, or because you’re worried you won’t do it very well.


Inability to Enjoy Life

Efficiency doesn’t have much to say about relaxing, recharging and simply having fun. Sure, you’ll come across some tips along the lines of “take frequent breaks so you can focus better while you’re working” – but you won’t find much that helps you really live a richer life.

People who become obsessed with efficiency can become rather joyless. They might find it hard or impossible to “switch off”. They may be constantly worrying about the utility of a particular aspect of their life. Efficiency says “keep doing more.”

On a broader level, focusing too much on efficiency may mean that you ignore what you really want from life. You might be keen to take a sabbatical or make a substantial commitment of time or energy as a volunteer. You might want to change to a new career that you’d love – but that would bring in less money.

Change It:

Instead of trying to be efficient, think about being effective. How can you make a difference in the world? What would you really love to do with your life?


Of course, efficiency does have a role to play. If you’re doing work that you enjoy, you’ll want to do it well. You’ll also have chores to complete that might not be fun or fulfilling, but which need to get done – and so you’ll want to find ways to get these out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Be careful, though, to keep efficiency in its place. Don’t let it become an end in itself – just a means of supporting the rest of your life.

How efficient – or effective – are you? Share your thoughts in the comments…

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