Mar 11, 2009

Angels and Demons of Personal Efficiency

Many people try to be efficient. There are various methods for achieving high efficiency in life and work. Many sites exist that describe how to become more efficient and how good it is. Interestingly none of them describes drawbacks. Sites and books and seminars all provide tools but none warns human being about potential dangers of high efficiency.
Nothing in the life is absolutely black and white. There are always mid–tones and shadows. Efficiency also has its light and dark sides.
Personally I am a big fan of efficiency. I tried being efficient instinctively for most of my life and I do it consciously for past several years. Did it help me in my career and life? Certainly it did. Did it do anything bad? Hmmm. I never thought of that before. But last week I saw the comment in one of posts in in my blog. Jens wrote: “don't fall into the GTD (Getting Things Done) trap and efficiency hell”. This comment triggered something in my head and I decided to analyze both light and dark side of the personal efficiency.

What is personal efficiency?

Before we talk about bad and good sides, let's clarify what efficiency means in the context of this article. So what do I mean by “personal efficiency”?
Personal efficiency is a way to behave that allows to achieve more in the same time frame with less resources and better result.
Does this sound good? Yes, it does! It sounds good and attractive. Let's see some examples of personal efficiency.

Efficiency example: focusing

One of the major principles of being efficient is focusing. Focusing means that at one single period of time a person should be focused on a single task. It helps to finish the task faster and with a greater quality.
If the task is interrupted by another task, it is bad: thoughts are lost, the content of our working memory is overwritten by some other tasks. Coming back to the same task takes time to restore the content of the working memory, to get the full speed and concentration. Thus focusing is important for efficiency. Interruptions break efficiency.
There are many ways to avoid interruptions. Switching off mobile phone is one of them. Turning of e–mail and instant messengers is another. In other words, shutting down all disturbances helps to focus on the task and be efficient.

Efficiency example: planning

Parkinson's law says that a task will take all the time that is allocated to this task. I can add that it takes nearly 10% more (depends on the person who does the task and his efficiency).
I have a workday planner, where I write tasks for current and next days. Right part is time schedule, left part contains goals for the day.
With this workday planner the time allocated for the work can be held under control. It helps to keep consequences of the Parksinson's law to the minimum. If I know I must accomplish this task in 2 hours, what choice do I have? I have to finish it in two hours, that's it! So I shutdown all disturbances and do the work.
Planning has an important constraint. It must be realistic. For planning to be realistic, people must be able to estimate time properly. Not everyone can do it from scratch but most people can learn how to do it.

Efficiency example: shopping

Efficiency is not only work–related, it also affects normal life. For example, this Friday I need to accomplish several tasks outside of my home:
  • Go to the bank and get Russian money (I plan to travel to Russia soon)
  • Bring my cat for vaccination to a veterinarian
  • Buy food for the weekend
If I do these tasks in the order I wrote them in the planner, this will cause more time. All these places are located in different areas of the city. It is efficient to see how can I visit them with the minimum fuel consumption, shortest time and guarantied result.
So I called the bank to reserve the money for me on Friday and agreed that they will keep these money for the whole day. I can come any time from 9:00 till 17:00. It gives me a lot of time freedom with the bank visit.
There are two veterinarians near each other, so I will definitely catch one of them. Their phone numbers are not in the phone book, so I could not call them. I go to them first. If they are not there, I will return again after doing other tasks.
The food shop is very far from to other places, so I plan visit it last. It will also save frozen fish from unfreezing.
In case if I have to wait for a veterinarian, I have my iPhone with headphone and an educational audio book to listen.
It is a simple planning but it helps achieve tasks better and faster.

Why personal efficiency is good?

The examples above show why personal efficiency is good. Basically it helps to achieve tasks better, faster and with less resources. It makes more time available for other activities. The more efficient I am in my work, the more I can enjoy books or play with kids.
Efficiency makes people more organized. It reduces clatter, forces to get rid of all unused goods and keep the house clean. It is good and efficient.
Business and correspondence gain a lot from personal efficiency. When everything is highly organized it helps to find information quickly, process it better and respond faster. Response become clear and cause much less questions.
Personal efficiency saves money. For example, it forces me to keep the house well maintained. When the house is well maintained, it needs less maintenance. Sounds absurd but it is true. By doing prophylactic work during last summer I reduce damage and costly repairs after the winter season. It is efficient! Another money saving: by rerouting my shopping path I am able to save on fuel costs and buy in a cheaper store. It is double efficient!
Personal efficiency helps to become a better professional. When a person tries to be efficient in everything, it immediately makes the person to act more efficient at his work. As a result, the efficient person becomes an expert in much shorter time than many others. Experts are paid better and can enjoy more of the life.

Why and how personal efficiency can become bad?

The problems due to personal efficiency start to appear when people become too efficient or when they become obsessed with efficiency.
The more efficient the person gets, the more he sees how inefficient are other people. When it comes to some critical amount, the efficient person starts trying to make less efficient persons to be more efficient. This is where it all starts to break.
If the person is efficient, he must live with the fact that other people may be less efficient or inefficient at all. It is sometimes hard to see that people do something in much longer way than they could or should. A simple example of that can be see in mailing lists. Every day a question of “How do I xyz?” pops up. Every day such question can be answered by the first result in Google search for the corresponding search term. It takes seconds to type the term into the search box and get the result. It takes some minutes to read, apply and test the solution. But yet many people fail to do it. Inefficiency of this approach makes efficient people shudder.
This is how efficiency becomes a demon: it makes efficient people feel bad about inefficient people. And worse: the felling is itself is inefficient, which makes efficient people feel bad about himself being inefficient. It may become an obsession and mental problem. It is a big danger of being efficient!
The more this obsession possesses the person, the more inefficiency the person sees around. The more unhappy he becomes. This is a path to the dark side of the efficiency.
Fortunately, it is possible to recognize symptoms and stop in the right place and time. Just let people be what they are. If the person is efficient, it is good. If not, it is just as it is. Efficient people can help inefficient people by showing them how to approach their target in a better way. This is good, non–offending way to make everyone happy and raise common efficiency.
So if you are efficient, avoid the dark side. People are what they are. Just live with it and life will be better.


Thanks to Jens for inspiring me to write this article.


  1. Sebastian GebhardMarch 11, 2009 at 2:24 PM

    I still can't see the real drawback of efficiency.

    Ok, when you do good you can feel sorry for others who don't, or maybe you can also feel angry, depending on the situation.

    But this is not a problem which is specific for efficiency.

    When you have a $100.000 car you may feel uncomfortable when you have to drive your friend's 15 year old VW Golf.

    When you are a very good looking person (and you are superficial) it can be embarassing for you to walk around with an ugly person. (Ok, strange example, skip that)

    But for me this does not make a good car a bad thing.

  2. Great post, i love the part about seeing other inefficient people and feeling bad about it. That is SO TRUE :)


  3. I think there are no drawbacks if efficiency does not change how some people treat about other people.

  4. Hello Dmitry,

    I am not convinced by your post. The problem is that some people believe to be efficient or think to know what efficiency is, but in reality they are not as efficient as they would be.

    Efficient people tend to be stressed by time. This may have several drawbacks in my opinion. I had a boss who was really a clever guy, but he wanted to be too efficient.

    Any planning, as well made as possible, can be disturbed by non-predictable events. Suppose that in your friday planning, your sister call you and bother you for an hour or two. Or she could come to give you a surprise visit.

    If you plan too much on efficiency, respecting your time schedule is important. Such events can destroy your whole week-end plans.

    You need to be able to adjust your plans to reality. This is probably more important than just efficiency (well, maybe you will answer me that this is part of what you call "efficiency").

  5. >... not change how some people treat about other people.

    including himself ;)

  6. efficiency in work is a very important and powerful thing.. but please remember:

    We don't have to fullfil our lives - we should live our lives!

    Lying in the gras and counting clouds... don't try to count as many clouds in the shortest possible time!

    Let us relax and enjoy our spare time :-)

  7. Jean-Luc, you are right of course... Effective people are more stressed than other people. But this is the cost of being effective: you manage to do more.

    Christoph, life is definitely more important :) This is where I see efficiency demons: they do not let us see the life...

  8. Effective people are more stressed only if they forgets about emotions and body. If someone saves err 2 hours a day and invest it not in work but in walk (with children or dog) and any good physical training - why he will be stressed? And in short time he will be able to save 3 hours a day and invest one in work.

    Only my opinion and my experience :) Save quantity - invest in quality - get both quality and quantity...

  9. Philipp, good exprience :) I also found that walking helps. Earlier I drve to the kindergarten to get my daughter in evenings. Now I walk and I like it! :) It is very refreshing.

  10. I disagree with your example for the bad side of personal efficiency (mailing list). Say a person does Google the question, and gets back a set of results he needs to read through to discover the answer. It takes a lot of time, and may not answer the question exactly - and leave the reader confused, or perhaps not sure if the approach is applicable to his/her situation. Wouldn;t it be more efficient (in the global sense of the word) to ask an expert - such as yourself - who could quickly distill the question down to the basic issue, and provide a direct answer or a link to the documentation?

    In other words, not all questions can be answered by Google as efficiently as they could be by a human being.

    But I see your point about the dangers of personal efficiency. In my view, another potential bad side is too much task orientation, that perhaps takes away from creativity or spontaneousness...

  11. Dan, you are absolutely right. I want to have only one small correction.

    I often get questions about TYPO3 by e-mail (typically at least 5 questions daily). I have to send a standard response that asks people to send such questions to mailing lists. Why? Because if I answer everyone by e-mail:

    - it will be too much extra load to me

    - the answer will not be shared with the community

    - anyone else who knows the answer cannot append his knowledge to a common knowledge

    So I really prefer that people ask in mailing lists. I have three 45 minute slots per day allocated exclusively to checking and replying in mailing lists. This is my contribution to the community.

  12. Thanks a lot! Very actual theme for me. As addition I recommend to read the article Improving personal efficiency