The Cult of Efficiency

Once, years ago, my friend Natalie asked me, “You always say you’re too busy for stuff. What are you doing with your time?” There was an awkward, confused silence, because my every waking moment felt crammed with non-discretionary activities, stuff I had to do and do well. I felt like I barely had time to brush my teeth in the activity hurricane of my life. Natalie also had young kids and a full-time-job, but also inexplicably had time for actual hobbies, like tennis and blogging. I wondered: could she teach me the secret to even more productivity so I could finally grasp the brass ring of Leisure?

I’ve spent my whole life praying to the God of Efficiency: how can I complete this task faster, with the fewest number of steps? How can I minimize effort and maximize results? I obsessively plotted the fastest way from X to Y (total mileage adjusted for traffic and lights) and how to squeeze in just one more thing before the next thing. I planned out the next six steps before starting step one, checked email while listening to a webinar, folded laundry while watching YouTube videos. I mentally composed lists of Things That Must Get Done while in the shower, in the car, while friends confided hopes and fears.

After a lifetime of practice, I was — if I can brag — a world champion multi-tasker, a high-priestess of productivity.

Living with a happiness expert, I knew all about presence and mindfulness and all that science-based whatnot. I dabbled a little, when my kids were young and my life was a never-ending parade of laundry and dishes and butt-wiping and there was no free-time pot-of-gold at the end of my daily rainbow. Focusing on the feeling of the hot water, the smell of the dish soap, the satisfaction of a neat row of clean plates worked to some extent, in that it mitigated my urge to run screaming out the front door and not stop — Forrest Gump-like — until my kids were less unendingly, head-spinningly needy. But mindfulness was just a cute sideshow to the reality of my high-on-busyness life.

Then I went to Colombia.

Maybe I could have made a go of my productivity cult in Medellin, with its multinational corporations and its citified hustle-and-bustle vibe. But in Santa Marta? Please. Efficiency was so far down Santa Martians’ list of cultural priorities that it was laughable. Need a plane ticket? Reserve online, then go get cash at the bank and pay at the grocery store. Oh, except first you have to figure out at which bank your ATM card works today (because it varies under some inexplicable rubric), and whether it’s locked for the evening (because, why?) or broken or out of cash. Buses left not on a schedule but instead whenever they filled up. I am confident that we spent more time on the process of signing my kids up for school — finding a location to make copies, trips to different banks to pay different parts of the fees and tuition, the complete lack of a checklist so that there was always just one more thing — than they did actually going to school.

Because this was part of the cultural learning experience I was looking for, I (mostly) laughed at the inefficiency. I couldn’t spend my time planning to do something productively because I wouldn’t know, until I started, what was entailed. And I had so few commitments. Why bother multi-tasking when I had only one task to complete that day? Instead, I daydreamed, or let my brain be blissfully silent. I focused all my attention on what I was doing: spending an hour throwing spoons in the pool for my son to dive for instead of simultaneously composing a blog post in my head, planning our trip to Palomino and wondering when I could move on to the next thing.

And I loved it. I had so many interesting thoughts to think, when I wasn’t obsessively planning. I was curious, and creative, and thoughtful. And importantly, shit still got done. I discovered that I could think for the first time about what we should pack for a weekend trip on the morning of our departure, instead of creating packing lists and piles a week ahead of time. I could open the fridge at 6pm and think about dinner then, instead of 16 times over the course of the day. (Duh, right? But this was new to me.)

Here’s what I realized: All that planning time, the time I thought was saving time for fun stuff later, was taking up brain space for the fun stuff I was doing now. From a brain-usage perspective, it was actually more efficient to stop thinking about efficiency. This realization changed my life.

Then I came home.

Home to all my old uber-efficiency habits. Where my morning routine for preparing scrambled eggs, toast and tea with the fewest steps, the least possible refrigerator door touches and the most uniform results is a model for manufacturing efficiency, possibly even a work of art. Where I get in my car after work and my shoulders scrunch up under my ears and I start simultaneously planning dinner and deciding which (un-urgent) errand I can squeeze in before picking up my kids. Where my brain automatically catalogues all the things that would make life even more perfect and works out a schedule to achieve that lauded state. Where my metric for a good day is how many things I checked off my lists, and the buzz of getting more done urges me onward.

But now it all feels like a gigantic waste of time.

So I have undertaken the herculean task of re-making my habits. I force myself to sit and look out at the view while I eat, instead of catching up on that article I wanted to read or starting another list. I take the long way home from work, because it’s more relaxing than the West 8-South 163 interchange at rush hour. I’ve made it a game to see how long I can put off going to Costco or Target or the grocery store before it’s actually a problem (short answer: a very long time). And I have promised myself to never, ever rush. When that tidal wave of hurry comes over me, I remember that if Colombians are okay showing up an hour after the scheduled meeting time, I can be five minutes late; I’m not a paramedic. Or I can leave now, instead of squeezing in just one more thing before I go. If an activity actually matters to me, it will get done. Some day.

It’s so cool. Hard to explain, if you haven’t experienced it, if like me, productivity is a core of your self-worth. But there is such an abundance of time in my life when I stopped rushing. Even with crazy stuff at work, and Eric out of town more often, and school starting, and all of the “ands” that surround us at all times, I have so much time. This sense of abundance, this slower speed makes me a more effective person. I see problems before they are problems. My solutions are more creative and effective. I am a nicer human being to be around, even — not least — inside my own head.

And yes, there have been some trade-offs. I have seen the “Quesadillas again?” look from family members. There are more paperwork piles and spider webs than my ideal living situation would include. I realized the day before class lists were posted that my kids weren’t actually registered for school. But the sky didn’t cave in. No one died. I’m not even sure anyone besides me really noticed.

So now, if Natalie asked me the same question — “What are you doing with your time?” — I’d have an answer. “Not much. Wanna grab some coffee?”


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