What's Tony Thinking

The Efficiency Trap


I came across a delightful essay the other day, “Escaping the Efficiency Trap and Finding Some Peace of Mind.” It was drawn from a new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman.

Burkeman has tried all sorts of tools and techniques to manage his time better, to be more efficient and make time for everything that feels important. To no avail. Here’s Burkeman:

“The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important is that you definitely never will. The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or applied sufficient effort or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted:

“There’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel ‘on top of things,’ or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done. That’s because if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goal posts start to shift: More things will begin to seem important, meaningful or obligatory.

“Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it. Figure out how to spend enough time with your kids and at the office, so you don’t feel guilty about either, and you’ll suddenly feel some new social pressure: to spend more time exercising or to join the parent-teacher association — oh, and isn’t it finally time you learned to meditate?”

Ah yes, the old, “They’ve moved the goalposts” feeling. You do more, and you get more to do. I remember when I added powerpoint slides to my talks in churches and at conferences. It wasn’t long before I discovered that the powerpoint was expected. Not only that, but audience members also expected to have a copy of the powerpoint slides at the conclusion. Before long people were telling me I needed to make the powerpoint more exciting, interesting, zingy. I’m sure they were right . . . sort of.

More from Burkeman: “The general principle in operation here is what we might call the ‘efficiency trap.’ Rendering yourself more efficient — either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder — won’t generally result in the feeling of having ‘enough time,’ because all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset the benefits. Far from getting more things done, you’ll be creating new things to do.”

Burkeman tried all sorts of tricks and techniques for getting on top of things, increasing his productivity and managing his time more efficiently. But none of them ushered in a “golden era of calm.” Instead, “I just got more stressed and unhappy.”

Until . . . “I remember sitting on a park bench near my home in Brooklyn one winter morning in 2014, feeling even more anxious than usual about the volume of undone tasks, and suddenly realizing that none of this was ever going to work.

“I would never succeed in marshaling enough efficiency, self-discipline and effort to force my way through to the feeling that I was on top of everything, that I was fulfilling all my obligations and had no need to worry about the future. Ironically, the realization that this had been a useless strategy for attaining peace of mind brought me some immediate peace of mind.”

Burkeman came to understand and accept something that is elusive for the modern, striving classes. Finitude. It’s a term that theologians use to describe the nature of being human. We are finite. In contrast to God who is not finite, but infinite. It means that we are by nature limited, which is tough to accept in a culture that is constantly telling us, “There are no limits.”

Actually, there are limits, as Burkeman discovered. We are finite not infinite, mortal not immortal. God is God, we are not. There is a kind of grace, that is to say a gift, in this. It is enough to be human, which may sometimes mean pushing our limits, but also means accepting our inherently limited nature and living within it gracefully and gratefully. You’re finite . . . rejoice!

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