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Edison Didn't Worry About Being Efficient and Neither Should You
In the tech and business worlds I often encounter people who are obsessed with maximizing their level of personal efficiency.
They search for the new app or workflow that will let them respond to emails 10% faster. They optimize their schedule, sleep, and meals. They become the subject, or author, of tweets and articles about their daily routine, or their tech stack, or their menagerie of dietary supplements.
But pretty much all of this is stupid. I’ve come to believe that almost all time spent worrying about how efficient you’re being is a waste.
What matters is what you do, not how efficiently you do it
How you do what you do is a marginal decision compared to what you do in the first place. Many of the most prominent purveyors of efficiency gospel are efficiently pumping out crap, while many of the people doing interesting work aren’t concerned with efficiency at all.
This applies at the highest level—what projects you take on in the first place—and one level below, in terms of what you prioritize within those projects.
In Work Less, Work More, I wrote about how one of the biggest mistakes I made as a startup founder was spending too much time on the day-to-day grind, at the expense of deep time spent contemplating the big, strategic issues facing the business. I fell into this trap in large part because, paradoxically, the smaller, less important stuff (responding to emails, trying to make one more sale, etc) actually looked and felt superficially more like “work”:
Contemplating the big issues might involve taking a long walk, or doodling for hours, or even just sitting and thinking deeply. Or it might involve taking an intentional break from any kind of thinking about work altogether and letting your subconscious mind do its thing, as the proper solutions to most complicated problems tend to resist active thought.
Since this latter type of work tends to be more open-ended and creative, it’s much less amenable to being made more efficient. In fact, sometimes this kind of deep thinking happens by accident in the space left by inefficiencies elsewhere. I’ve often celebrated the efficiencies remote work has brought me by eliminating my commute, but the truth is that some of my all-time best original ideas have come while I was on the subway.
Many of history’s most successful people were highly inefficient. Thomas Edison was infamous for his messy studio and chaotic work habits. Albert Einstein was so disorganized and forgetful that he almost never made a meeting on time. Churchill was a notorious procrastinator and an even more notorious drinker. And that’s before we even get to the shockingly high percentage of the Great Men of history who were incorrigible philanderers. Regardless of what you think of the morality of such behavior, the relentless pursuit of sex is certainly not a particularly efficient way to spend one’s time.
The only constant here is that pretty much none of these people lived the kinds of lives you’ll find in articles about the habits of successful people. After all, if those tips really worked, the people who write those articles would be able to use them to do something more significant than pumping out listicles about the habits of successful people.
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The only important productivity trick is regulating your emotions
The implicit promise of efficiency is that it will help us accomplish more of what we want to accomplish. But productivity-wise, tools and workflows are just tinkering around the edges. The actual way to become more productive is to get better at managing your emotions.
Like most people, I’ve lost vastly more time to procrastination—or to being unable to think straight because I was too anxious, too sad, or even occasionally too happy—than I have to inefficient processes. To the extent I’ve actually gotten better at accomplishing things over the years, it’s because I’ve become better at keeping my seesaw emotionality in check.
Some of this comes from general emotional maturity, and some of it comes from having gotten better at choosing to work on the things that are actually aligned with my deepest desires and goals, which is harder than it sounds.expresses this well in his essay The Value of Surrender:
My favorite productivity tip is to surrender utterly to what your life is. Stop bullshitting yourself about what your actual inclinations, appetites, and interests are…Freed of crazy stories about what your life was supposed to be, you may find that the friction in your life is much lower. That is real productivity, that’s how you get shit done, by not doing most of it.
The best way to be productive is to be genuinely motivated, and motivation comes from internal alignment. Obviously, none of us can have true motivation 100% of the time—we all sometimes have to work on things we’re not that into. But in those situations, it’s often worth reassessing whether efficiency is actually a worthy goal. Sometimes finishing your tasks more efficiently will give you some of your time back, but other times it just means you’ll be assigned even more work.
By the way, I’m convinced that it’s this need for emotional regulation that’s actually driving much of the professional class’s off-label prescription stimulant use. Sure, Adderall helps you focus. But it also makes you feel good, and it’s usually easier to get stuff done when you’re feeling good.
Efficiency: just a faster way to get to the grave
Until very recently in our species’ history, mere survival occupied most of our waking hours. The concept of efficiency is a luxury belief born of modernity. It arose, as with so many of our modern concerns, during the industrial revolution, as the machine became the dominant metaphor for the human being. But for its first hundred or so years, efficiency was something foisted on you by your boss at the factory, not something you voluntarily chose for yourself.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with efficiency in small doses. Certainly the average white collar worker wastes a lot of time; I too have watched my parents use a computer and learned to teach them keyboard shortcuts. But as with most ideologies, efficiency is best in small doses.
Being a person is inherently inefficient. We are imperfect, clumsy contraptions, prone to illogical thinking and stupid decisions, and the good life involves embracing this at least as much as fighting it. Try to optimize too much and you’ll find you’ve optimized yourself right into oblivion.
It’s good to cook even though it’s more efficient to order in; it’s good to do your own laundry even though it’s more efficient to have it sent out. And what is the widespread dissatisfaction with dating apps other than a revolt against efficiency gone too far? We crafted a more efficient way to sort through prospective matches, but like the overachieving student rewarded with more busywork, we swiped and swiped and didn’t actually get where we were trying to go any faster.
There’s a passage from A Gentleman in Moscow, one of my favorite novels of the past few years, that sums this up well. The book tells the story of an aristocrat sentenced to house arrest in a fancy hotel during the Russian Revolution. As his physical world shrinks, his emotional world widens. Midway through the book, he shares a life lesson with one of his friends in the hotel:
“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”
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