Are You Too Efficient To Be Effective?

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01Sep2010

Are You Too Efficient To Be Effective?

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By Ali Hale, Aliventures: Getting More From Life

“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” (Peter Drucker)

Do you pride yourself on being as efficient as possible? Can you race through “12,853 Articles, Forum Topics & Blog
Posts
” each week? Is your email inbox always empty? And your emails perfectly filed?

Are you measuring out your life, not in Prufrock’s coffee-spoons, but in the slow tick, tick, tick against tasks on your to-do list?

The Efficiency Obsession

It’s not exactly news that we’re an efficiency-obsessed culture. Look at government targets, look at the proliferation (and popularity) of blogs on “life hacking,” look at the number of books that aim to teach you to blitz through tasks as fast as possible.

The efficiency culture catches us young. If you’re a bright kid, much of school is boring. You learn to do everything you need to pass the exams (ticking off points on a syllabus, ticking off pages read, ticking off assignments completed) – and you learn to do it all with as little effort as possible.

It carries on at work. If you’re an employee, you don’t have much control over what you’re allowed to do when – and your tasks may be mundane, frustrating or seemingly worthless. So you learn to be efficient: to triage, to meet targets, to look busy. If you’re lucky, you might convince yourself that you’re doing a good job, that there’s some sort of meaning in how many widgets you’ve cranked, how many customer service emails you’ve answered, how many prospective clients you’ve called.

What We’re Missing Out On

Purpose and passion and people end up getting pushed aside in the rush. Taking time to explore ideas, to read, to brainstorm and even to plan seems like a “waste of time.” (Especially if you’re the owner of a business, with a wary eye on the bottom line.)

I get caught up in the “efficiency” mindset, too. As a freelance writer, my income depends on how many writing jobs I can find and how many pieces I write. It’s tempting to want to be as “efficient” as possible by spending a lot of time applying for new jobs or writing pieces on spec. Bigger tasks like producing my own products to sell don’t feel very “efficient.”

I’m learning to take a step back, though, to look for the path I want to follow, instead of blindly rushing onwards to a dead end.

Choose the things that improve your effectiveness instead of doing more and more to achieve a sense of efficiency.

Effectiveness comes from taking the time to stop and evaluate, rather than running faster and faster.

(Efficiency Verses Effectiveness, Life Tools For Women)

One of the things that’s helped me is realizing that if you don’t ask the right questions, you haven’t got a hope of finding the right answers…

What We Should Be Asking

Efficiency Asks The Wrong Questions

The problem with the efficiency mindset is that it homes in on little questions, on nit-picky details, before the big picture is in place. You start your day by asking yourself:

  • Can I cut 60 seconds off my coffee-run, so I’m back at my desk with my caffeine fix sooner?
  • How quickly can I clear my inbox?
  • What’s the best filing system for accessing these documents instantly, when I need them?
  • How many items can I get ticked off my to-do list?
  • Can I work through lunch to get more done?

These answers are easy. They don’t require creativity, lateral thinking, or any soul-searching. They encourage endless “fiddling” – and however efficiently and brilliantly you do an unnecessary, unimportant, time-wasting job, it won’t make you a jot more effective.

Effectiveness Asks Hard Questions

When you stop worrying about how fast you can race through your to-do list and your inbox, and instead start with a focus on being effective, the questions you ask suddenly opens up new worlds:

  • Would cutting my caffeine intake make me less jittery and irritable?
  • Why is my inbox so full, anyway? Can I delegate some of my incoming mail to someone else?
  • Am I in the right job?
  • Are these projects going anywhere, or am I working on them just for the sake of something to do?
  • Can I sit with someone at lunch and enjoy a fun (meaningful/thought-provoking) conversation?

These questions might be tough and uncomfortable. They might get at the deeper problems in your life, or they might prod at emotional sore spots. We don’t like hard questions: they’re the ones we avoid on exams, the ones we turn conversations away from.

But there’s a cost to sticking with the easy questions. Staying fixated on efficiency means a life spent on trivia, a life without many challenges and, consequently, without any big achievements.

How To Refocus On Effectiveness

If you want to refocus on the big picture and on the stuff that really matters to you, give yourself some serious time to think about your answers to:

  • What do you want to do with your life – what’s your purpose?
  • What gets you fired up and filled with excitement?
  • What skills and talents do you have?
  • What career would you love to be in?
  • What would you love to spend your days doing?
  • How could you leave the world a better place?
  • How could you have an impact which lasts beyond your own lifetime?

These are hard, deep, challenging questions. They repay deep thought, meditation, prayer or journaling. But they’re essential. You simply can’t be effective if your life is dribbling through your fingers in a mundane job that doesn’t fit with your skills and enthusiasms. You can’t be effective if you’re in very poor health (physical or mental).

You can’t put a number to how effective you are, but you’ll probably have a gut feeling. You know if you’re wasting your life. You know if you’re letting your dreams drift away. You know if your skills are lying dormant. You know if you’re making no progress towards your goals (whether you’ve made specific, conscious goals or not).

Add In Efficiency Once You’re Being Effective

Once you’ve figured out what you can do to be truly effective – to be a force for good in your family, in your community, in your country or even in the whole world – then you can start to consider efficiency. Now, efficiency means multiplying your effectiveness.

That could mean:

  • If you’re a teacher, train others to teach using your methods
  • If you’re a writer, spread your ideas further by putting them online
  • If you’re a parent, teach your kids to do simple chores: they’ll become more responsible, you’ll free up time for yourself
  • If you’re a manager, empower the people below you – giving them more freedom and autonomy so that you spend less time micro-managing and so that they’re more effective, too

But even if your efficiency is in the aid of effectiveness, don’t let it take over your life. Make room for people:

You simply can’t think efficiency with people. You think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things. I’ve tried to be “efficient” with a disagreeing or disagreeable person and it simply doesn’t work. I’ve tried to give ten minutes of “quality time” to a child or an employee to solve a problem, only to discover such “efficiency” creates new problems and seldom resolves the deepest concern.

(Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk, p170)

Talking to an upset friend for two hours on the phone might derail your plans to compose a new piece of music, but it could benefit that one person far more than any other actions you could take during the day. Putting your post-graduate coursework aside to bake cookies with your three-year-old might seem a waste of an afternoon, but again, it could mean a huge amount to your child. It can be hard to tell, in the heat of the moment, what will make the biggest difference.

I’m far from perfect. I find it difficult to take “down time,” to dream, plan and ponder, to read (and really savour what I’m reading, rather than returning to my English student “efficient” habits of ploughing through long Victorian novels….) I worry about “wasting” my time, regretting periods in the past where I wasn’t at all effective or efficient. But I’m slowly beginning to realize how easily trivia can eat up the whole of life, how easily an obsession with cramming more into each moment can make those moments worthless.

Do you struggle to focus on being effective? Are you struggling against the tide of “busy work” and “having it all”? If you’ve got any tips or stories to share, or if something I’ve said in this article struck a chord, the comments are open …

Written by Ali Hale. Ali is a professional writer and blogger, and a part-time postgraduate student of creative writing. This article originally posted on Ali’s blog.

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