An Overrated Ideal?


For the longest time, I believed doing more things, faster was the key to success/personal fulfillment/enlightenment. These days I am not so sure. Two events have thrown into question whether the pursuit of efficiency is really worth it: the rise of superstores and the always on workweek.

Efficiency in Retail Sales: Superstores

Growing up, my family shopped at stores like Target, JCPenny, and a regional grocer. Sunday afternoons were often spent going from location to location, picking up a few things here or there. (My mother did teach me one should shop for groceries last, lest they get ruined in the car.) Admittedly, this whole process was inefficient.

Nowdays, it is possible to go into a Target or Walmart superstore and do one-stop shopping. (I hope the groceries are still picked up at the end of the trip.) Much more efficient than the previous arrangement, I will grant you.

However, I wonder what we have lost by doing so. Nevermind the inevitable monopolization of the markertplace achieved by companies with larger economies of scale. Just try finding someone who actually knows clothes in the menswear department. Or a garderner who can tell you how to really get rid of those weeds. Or even just someone who is less overwhelmed than you at the myriad of choices available.

In order to increase efficiency in sales/consumer retail, you can either hire additional knowledgeable staff, or you can lower staff levels and have them become generalists. Which of those would a company motivated by short-term profit and loss statements prefer?

Now, this is not to say that the typical staff member at Target or Walmart is useless. Not at all. But they are less useful than a dedicated staff member in one department or another, one who works exclusively with one set of products.

Efficiency as practiced encourages the commodification of ideas and pre-scripted routines. It discourages spontaneous, and extemporaneous, interaction.

It also subtly implies that those who question it are traitors to the cause - “Do things inefficiently? Are you insane? We’re saving people time and money - goals worth striving towards, no?”. With an argument like that, it becomes impossible to argue against schemes to “improve” efficiency, and becomes ever easier to get roped into them.

Efficiency in Productivity: The Always-On Workweek

Consider the modern workweek. Ostensibly running from 0900 to 1700, five days a week, it now seems to run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year. “On call” is a phrase no longer reserved for doctors and nurses. We should respond to every email from our colleagues, regardless of the time. Work from home on the weekends…or after dinner. Preferably during, so as to meet that deadline!

Of course, if there is a big project due soon, or an impending deadline, then by all means, let us work as much as is required to get the thing done. However, not every deadline is urgent, and not every project is so important that working nonstop is a good idea. (Unless you really like that sort of thing. Here’s looking at you, Elon Musk!).

Efficiency as practiced encourages the commodification of people and their time. It discourages flexibile, and necessary, improvisation.

As a graduate student, there is often an implicit pressure to be thinking about research all the time. Sometimes this is good as it forces students to focus on making real and tangible progress on their work. I seem to do better with deadlines. Other times, it encourages students to stay in the office past their peak productivity hours, putting in time simply for the appearance of putting in work.

Efficiency: The Bane of Creativity?

Efficiency has brought about remarkable gains in standards of living. We can travel the globe by plane much faster than by boat. You can hail an Uber a the touch of a button. As is, the “modern world” is really quite efficient. Indeed, efficiency (and its concomitant trait, orderliness) are what make the modern world possible.

What have we given up to do so? Probably many things, but one which sticks out in my mind is creativity. There is an entire class of people for whom we do not expect efficiency, namely, artisians and craftsmen. We value them precisely because what they provide is one of a kind, unique. We understand the inanity in demanding Yo-Yo Ma produce a new cello piece in a week. We do not demand Haruki Murakami write another novel in a month. We understand that creativity takes time.

Of course, you may observe that a well trained artist can produce a great piece of work within a reasonable timeframe, especially when compared against an artist with less training. Are they not more efficient, and is that not a good thing?

Yes, and yes/no. A good artist, on their own schedule and in their own way, can produce a better piece of work. But the time savings arises from their skill - it is not imposed externally. Which is precisely how efficiency is practiced today - people are expected to produce results by the deadline, instead of the deadlines being set by how long it should reasonably take people to produce the results.

A creative process takes time, and we respect that. I claim a lot of the “knowledge work” done today - including software engineering (future post!) - is more creative than people realize. As such, expecting to improve efficiency through arbitrary and external deadlines is pointless.

On the whole, efficiency and its pursuit has escaped all human proportions. Just because things can be done more efficiently does not mean they should. Especially creative things.