The On Being Project

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

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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