Are You a Victim of the Efficiency Trap?

Author: Jerry Cahn

Are You a Victim of the Efficiency Trap?


Time is one of the Essentials of Life that we need to take charge of if we want to lead a fulfilling, elongated life.  This includes several aspects including integrating our sense of “past, present, and future”, and what we often call “time management” – using our daily allotment of 24 hours. (Similarly, the Health Essential has physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual components.)

Oliver Burkeman’s new book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals”, addresses both of these time dimensions. Reflecting on life, he notes that we’ve backed ourselves into an “efficiency trap”. We try to become more and more efficient – either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving ourselves harder.  Neither makes us feel that “we have more time for ourselves” because, all else being equal, the demands of our technological, fast-paced life continue to increase to offset any benefits. Rather than having free time by being more efficient, we fill the extra time with new things to do and then try to become more efficient with them.  Sound familiar?

It reminds me of the impact of Frederick Winslow’s Scientific Management whose principles provide the foundation for our industrial age. By optimizing and simplifying jobs on assembly lines, productivity would increase. But then we figured out how to speed things up so we could be more productive. In essence, we became “robotized”- accessories to the assembly line in order to keep productivity going. And when we can’t do it, we improvise, as Lucy did in her classic Chocolate factory video. (J).

Burkeman recognizes that most of the time, most of us can’t escape the trap. We need to stop believing that we can solve the challenge of busyness by cramming more in (because you can’t as Lucy learned). Instead of holding on to the illusion that one day we’ll make time for everything, we need to accept that the only way to achieve long-term peace of mind is to make distinctions that aren’t about efficiency.

As an executive coach, there are two powerful tools I use to make meaningful distinctions. 

  • One is Stephen Covey’s 4 Time-Management-Quadrant framework of distinguishing between what’s important and what’s urgent. The Key is to focusing on the priorities: what’s important gets done first; what’s not important can be delegated. If something is urgent (e.g., building on fire), it gets attention before what’s not urgent. And then figure out how to make urgent activities non-urgent (e.g., fire prevention steps significantly reduce the need to fight fires.
  • The second is from Positive Intelligence: the distinction between Impact-level vs. Energy Utilization.  We want to do things that have great impact on ourselves or the world, and “charge our batteries” and not things that drain our energy with low impact.

In other words, we need to recognize that we are victims of the “efficiency-trap”: an endless pit if all we do is fill time freed up from efficiencies with more things to do more things that we’ll then want to make more efficient.  Instead, we can make decisions not to engage in activities we don’t prioritize and work on building a more productive, meaningful, and joyful life.

To lead such a fulfilling, elongated life, we might adopt the serenity prayer and follow it: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” At the least, ask your older-wiser self for help to make the distinctions!

How do you plan to avoid the “efficiency trap” to energize your batteries for the wonderful adult life you want till you reach 100+?  Share your thoughts and strategies.