I’m Suspicious of Efficiency, and I’m Addicted To It

Thursday, August 10, 2017 - 4:40 pm
People gather around the communal dining table.

I’m Suspicious of Efficiency, and I’m Addicted To It

“I’m suspicious of efficiency.”

I heard myself say it. I hadn’t planned on saying it. It wasn’t a talking point. Truth be told, I hadn’t ever said it or even thought it before, but it was one of those out-of-body experiences I’ve been thinking about a lot ever since. In part, because it’s one of the things listeners bring up with me most often. But also because it so surprised and puzzled me.

My dear Parker Palmer often talks about the importance of “hearing other people into their own wisdom.” And, that’s what happened during my intergenerational dialogue with him and Krista in a small coastal village in Maine.

The wisest part of me is suspicious of efficiency. The truth is, I’m also obsessed with efficiency.

It’s not only an extracurricular fascination — How could you not be intrigued by how the people you admire get important things done? — but, now that I have kids, being efficient is a survival mechanism. I simply couldn’t care for my children and make a living and nurture friendships and contribute to a community (and…and…and…) in the way that I want to unless I was extremely judicious with my time and energy.

So no, I don’t log every minute, dollar, or calorie consumed. Ugh, I hate even writing those words. But I do wish I had a really smart email system that allowed me to move projects forward accountably and respond to people with kindness while expending way less energy and heartache. (Maybe it’s called Slack?! Or this weird new invention called a telephone where you can resolve things or make plans in real time?)

The more I think about it, the more I realize that it would probably be more accurate to say that I’m suspicious that modern humans — myself included — overvalue efficiency.

It’s a useful mindset in all kinds of different contexts and for a variety of reasons, some of which are very noble. We should absolutely, for example, insist that the process that people experiencing homelessness have to go through in order to find housing be redesigned. Eradicating redundancies and unnecessary bureaucracy, particularly those that poor people have to navigate to get access to basic care, is dignifying work.

Valuing efficiency in some contexts can be deeply problematic and even dehumanizing. Educating humans, for one, should be understood as inherently inefficient. That doesn’t mean you don’t want effective schools, but the measure of that effectiveness should not be speed, scale, or cost per unit. Same goes for raising humans. And making art. And creating community. And so many other critical human functions.

Our capacity to discern which context we’re in — one where efficiency is the smart or even noble thing, and ones where it is actually a damaging expectation — is endangered. We live in a world that emphasizes efficiency too broadly. We wield it wherever we go — a mindless weapon that we swing around in even the most delicate and organic of situations.

The last five years of my life have felt like a master class in when to lay down efficiency. My daughters, more than anybody else, have taught me just how over-reliant on efficiency I have become. There are moments when I am with them, and I can feel my entire body constricting with a sort of modern terror at how long something is taking. Try, for example, walking up a flight of stairs with a dawdling three-year-old. Or we’ll be doing an activity, like making lemonade, and I’ll be watching my daughter and analyzing how she’s doing it “all wrong,” and then the wiser part of me will correct the “efficiency officer” who has taken up residency in my head: That’s called learning. It’s called creativity. Go take a smoke break, a-hole.

I’ve also gotten a master class in the subtleties of efficiency from living in an intentional community. There are times when we collectively value and even design for maximum efficiency. When it comes to common meals, we have figured out that it makes most sense for one household to shop, cook, and clean when it is their turn. We eat together twice a week and each household cooks twice a quarter. It works so wildly well, but there are other moments when the community deliberately chooses to do something in an inefficient way because we are prioritizing other values.

We recently cut some huge branches off of one of our trees and, instead of hiring someone to haul the branches away, we spent weeks taking turns breaking the branches down and stocking up our firewood and filling up our green bins. It was not only cheaper, it meant hours of conversation and exercise. One of the community members, Deborah, and I put on our gardening gloves and chipped away at the beautiful pile while chatting about her latest art project and how we might be attentive to the growing homelessness in Oakland. We took small breaks to sniff Maya’s smelly markers; she was coloring on her mini-trampoline nearby. It wasn’t really about getting it done. It was about being together.

It all makes me wonder: How much of my own personal anxiety is rooted in expecting efficiency in the wrong circumstances? What’s more important, how much of the world’s huge, tragic mistakes are also related to this? We have probably wasted billions of dollars and devalued countless human lives while mindlessly worshipping at the feet of efficiency. I’m on a quest, not to abandon efficiency entirely, but get wiser about when I expect it and when I lay it down in order to honor less measurable, more organic processes.

Join me?

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    Such obsessive concern for efficiency, I have learned, falls under the personality trait “conscientiousness.” Conscientiousness, scholarly research shows, correlates to a high degree with academic and job performance – unless creativity is required. For creativity, consciousness can be a handicap and a looser, more flexible approach more fruitful.
    Some people are at one extreme for conscientiousness (as you may be!) and some at the other, just as with extroversion, neuroticism, openness, and so forth. Humans are intriguingly varied.
    Sticking by set rules presumed to be best and trying to force others to do so is very well understood to be at odds with the experimentation that can lead to discovery. You are right too that those who think they have a handle on efficiency often use as benchmarks too few things the institution should be trying to achieve and often the wrong ones!
    People who study carefully mankind’s greatest tragedies do not, I think, find obsession with efficiency one of the big factors. Rather, factors like differences in fundamental values and beliefs (about fairness, loyalty, liberty, and so forth), conflicts of interest of various kinds over power and possessions, exploitation of commons, distrust of outsiders, and so forth loom large. A great recent book that explores this area is Robert Sapolsky’s Behave.
    But just because something isn’t the grand cause of most of the bad things people have done to themselves and others throughout history that doesn’t mean it isn’t a really valuable thing for each of us to consider in organizing our own lives, being parents, being friends, and being members of communities.
    It’s a great thing to notice and keep an eye on in yourself!

  • Kathryn

    As an American pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, I became very aware that efficiency is a value that seems to be built into our way of living. I was not conscious of how large a part it played in how we spend our time and conduct our affairs until I experienced life at a walking pace in a way that did not put efficiency at the top of the list of virtues. I think you’re correct that, in our consumer culture, we need to cultivate an awareness of when efficiency is needed and when its just a way to get us to buy more stuff and live more mindlessly

  • Mary Colson

    Thank you so much for your reflection on the inherent inefficiencies in educating humans. I teach middle school science and the decade plus years of testing and accountability have squeezed out the joy of learning and the time needed to encourage kids to be curious, make mistakes and try again. Perhaps the education community is due for a mindset shift, including the need to consider the question “Can we really test what matters most?”

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  • Judy Montel

    A big part of the problem for me is to switch in and out of “efficient mode”, and I’ve noticed that other people and organizations have just as much, or even more trouble making the switch. Because in life sometimes you have to, and noticing when that has happened and being not just able, but practiced at switching into being together as humans from being efficient – and in fact, being able to do it in reverse – these are skills that that take learning, repetition and wisdom. Wishing us all luck!

  • “There are moments when I am with them, and I can feel my entire body constricting with a sort of modern terror at how long something is taking.” I laughed. Because, yes. My children are still teaching me about my reliance on control, perfectionism and efficiency. 🙂

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