Rethinking efficiency

There is more to life than simply increasing its speed

Anyone in the current work culture doesn’t need to be briefed about speeding-up and efficiency – they are integral part of work culture across the globe. Yet, we do not fully understand the behavioural affects of this life in the fast lane. In this article I am exploring some of those affects with the help of couple of TED talks and connecting it with few other essays and books.

Kathryn Bouskill is an Anthropologist and social scientist studying how our health is shaped by not only our biology, but also by our behaviors and cultural contexts. In the first TED talk – The unforeseen consequences of a fast-paced world she discusses inevitability of speeding-up, where it helps, where it harms and need for slowing down in certain situations.

Stone-Agers in the fast lane

Kathryn Bouskill found in her research that people acknowledged that acceleration was unavoidable and they feared that they might become obsolete if they slow down. They prefer to burn out rather than rust out. At the same time they are concerned that speed might ruin their culture and their own sense of home. This is how she explains this paradox.

The first paradox is that we love speed, and we’re thrilled by its intensity. But our prehistoric brains aren’t really built for it, so we invent roller coasters and race cars and supersonic planes, but we get whiplash, carsick, jet-lagged. We didn’t evolve to multitask. Rather, we evolved to do one thing with incredible focus, like hunt – not necessarily with great speed but with endurance for great distance. But now there’s a widening gap between our biology and our lifestyles, a mismatch between what our bodies are built for and what we’re making them do. It’s a phenomenon my mentors have called “Stone Agers in the fast lane.”

The disadvantages of multi-tasking are well known, the preference of mono-tasking was mentioned in Ikigai and product designer Paolo Cardini echoes that sentiment as well in his talk: Forget multitasking, try monotaking. It is reassuring to see how people from different cultures, different generations, different professions come up with similar principles and such insights are invaluable.

Eilkrankheit – Hurry sickness

Eilkrankheit is a German word the baffled feeling that life is just racing by, Bouskill roughly translates it to ‘hurry sickness’ that most of us experience in the fast-paced life. Bouskill also elaborates distinction between quick decisions and the ones that require thorough thinking with reference to the classic book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Oftentimes, when our society has major failures, they’re not technological failures. They’re failures that happen when we made decisions too quickly on autopilot. We didn’t do the creative or critical thinking required to connect the dots or weed out false information or make sense of complexity. That kind of thinking can’t be done fast. That’s slow thinking. Two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, started pointing this out back in 1974 we’re still struggling to do something with their insights.

She also emphasizes that sometimes we need to adapt ourselves for faster pace, and sometimes we need to slow down – it is for us to discern the right strategy in the given situation. Do listen to her talk, she will get you thinking –

“If all of these faster technologies were supposed to free us from drudgery, why do we all feel so pressed for time?”

The Paradox Of Efficiency

Another interesting TED talk related to efficiency is by Edward Tenner – he is a historian, speaker, writer and analyzes the cultural aspects of technological change. He has written a book – The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do and in this talk, he discusses some of the ideas from his book. He questions if our obsession with efficiency actually making us less efficient?

This part that discusses efficiency with respect to false-positives and false-negative with examples such as ‘Harry Potter’ is quite relevant and important.

Efficiency also bites back with false positives. Hospitals have hundreds of devices registering alarms. Too often, they’re crying wolf. It takes time to rule those out. And that time results in fatigue, stress and, once more, the neglect of the problems of real patients. There are also false positives in pattern recognition. A school bus, viewed from the wrong angle, can resemble a punching bag. So precious time is required to eliminate misidentification. False negatives are a problem, too. Algorithms can learn a lot — fast. But they can tell us only about the past. So many future classics get bad reviews, like “Moby Dick,” or are turned down by multiple publishers, like the “Harry Potter” series. It can be wasteful to try to avoid all waste.

Inspired Inefficiency

This is a term coined by Edward Tenner – inspired inefficiency. He argues in favour of human intuition and human skills. He discusses seven facets of inspired inefficiency, here are some excerpts from his talk that I found intriguing.

My answer to all these questions is: inspired inefficiency. Data and measurement are essential, but they’re not enough. Let’s leave room for human intuition and human skills.
Sometimes try the hard way. It can be more efficient to be less fluent. Psychologists call this desirable difficulty. Taking detailed notes with a keyboard would seem to be the best way to grasp what a lecturer is saying, to be able to review it verbatim. However, studies have shown that when we have to abbreviate, when we have to summarize what a speaker is saying, when we’re taking notes with a pen or a pencil on paper, we’re processing that information. We’re making that our own, and we are learning much more actively than when we were just transcribing what was being said.

Do listen to this talk – Tenner starts with case of efficient potato production and effortlessly discusses algorithms, IoT and even Edison to explain how technology is changing our behaviour.

Connecting the dots

The feeling of ‘Eilkrankheitthe discomfort with racing-life‘ is something I had discussed in Rethinking busy life and The Busy Trap earlier here on My Zen Path; though both these articles discussed busy life as such. This article however, delves more into our obsession with efficiency and speeding up.

Being more efficient is the mantra that we all live by today. Adam Smith’s idea of efficiency has completely engulfed modern work-culture, despite newer age research showing many of its pitfalls. American psychologist Barry Schwartz studies link between economics and psychology, he also criticizes industrial revolution and consequential capitalism as manifestation of the ideas put forth by Smith, Taylor and Skinner (from – Why we work). Behavioural economist Dan Ariely questions if the meaning is more important than efficiency in the current knowledge economy? (from – What makes us feel good about our work?). I’d highly recommend you to read both these articles with respect to efficiency discussion here.

Maybe it’s a good idea to think slow and examine where efficiency is really required in our life, and where it might be actually harming us. Maximizing every single time is not possible, and as the research is showing, it is not desirable as well. Perhaps, there is a chance to use inspired inefficiency in some aspects of our life?

The featured images:

The featured image for this article is a free wallpaper from QuoteFancy and quote by Mahatma Gandhi, who wisely understood – “There is more to life than simply increasing its speed”. The photograph is credited to Tirza van Dijk and I am using this image here on with gratitude. Based on feedback of a close friend & MyZenPath reader, I am also using this quote as a tagline for this article.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking efficiency

  1. Do read this brilliant take by Eklavya Sinha on familiar Hare & Tortoise story.

    “Today you have been challenged by a tortoise. Tomorrow, it will be a snake. Then it will be a zebra. Will you keep racing all your life to prove that you are the fastest?”


    “Forget the race. You are hare today but you will be gone tomorrow.”

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