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Is there such a thing as ‘too efficient’? Life Hacks by Charles Assisi


The last few weeks have felt torrid, despite doing everything right. By “right”, I mean checking off all the planned boxes and being efficient to the T. It would be evident only in hindsight that efficiency comes at a price. How much efficiency is good, is a question worth examining as well.

The thing is, I’ve spent a few years practising how to be efficient, and this compels me to be meticulous about much of what I do. That is why I plan for the months to come, weeks to follow, and the days that lie ahead. Every hour must be accounted for as well.

Until not too long ago, I’d argue with anyone who cared to listen that being extremely efficient was a good way to be. Because efficient people work on just the right things at just the right time. They take mandatory breaks and even sleep the right number of hours. When in doubt, I have taken solace from the advice of the French writer Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

This thinking was challenged a few weeks ago, when in conversation with a gentleman from my avatar as a business writer. He shall stay unnamed because of his public persona. I have known him for a little over 15 years, and I reached out to him tentatively. We hadn’t spoken in a while and the image I continued to carry of him was that of an overweight man always in a hurry. When we got on a video call at the appointed hour, the image that stared back was of an altogether different person — a relaxed man in an athletic frame. It was inevitable that I forgot the original questions and felt compelled to probe him about the transformation. The narrative that followed was an interesting one.

After 25 years of a professional life that followed a meticulous schedule and had honed him to be an efficient machine, a voice in his head argued that something wasn’t right. Much thinking later, he figured out where the issue was. There was a divergence between how he practised his professional life and how he lived his personal one.

The professional in him knew what it took to run a company well. It didn’t mean moving seamlessly from one activity to another. Instead, it meant taking downtime as well at regular intervals, because the people there needed this too, in order to function optimally. Then there were the hours when unknowns would kick in, such as regulatory issues to comply with. To deal with all of this, as the leader, he had to work to create room for slack in the system. He would have extra people in place as backup for some roles, and knew where to look for key resources in case any exited; he knew just what kind of monies the company needed to keep on hand at all times, so it could tide over a crunch without hitting the panic button if exigencies arose. It had become, to him, common sense.

But when he extrapolated this analogy to his personal life, he saw that there was no room for slack there. Every hour was accounted for. We joked about a cliché. Most of us underestimate the effort and overestimate the time we have on hand. I could relate to that right away because I operate at very efficient levels.

That is when it when it occurred to me that I introspect and ask, why does “Spend time with family” have to be on my TBD? For that matter, does “Read for 60 minutes” have to be another checkbox to be ticked off?

When thought about, it becomes clear that the reason we find ourselves placing such items on our lists is because there is no slack in our lives. We are efficient creatures. And when looked at from that perspective, efficiency isn’t always good. And integrating slack doesn’t come naturally because it makes us fidgety. Add to this the mountain of literature on productivity that drives us towards ever-greater efficiency (it seems like no amount is enough anymore).

What, then, constitutes the way out, the path to greater balance? Simply acknowledging that all efficiency isn’t necessarily good is half the mountain climbed. There is much else to be done. The wife and kids now watch with much amusement as I fidget once in a while when watching a movie because I think it isn’t the most efficient way to use the time.

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