The Myth of Efficiency

James Kwak's excellent post The Myth of Efficiency is rooted in the idea that for most professionals "the length of their workday isn’t set by a clock, but by their sense of when they’ve done enough for the day."

I’ve become very skeptical of the simple argument for efficiency studies….The idea is that time has a monetary value (say, the per-hour employment costs of each employee), and if you save time, you save money. One example that LeBlanc mentions is moving printers. It seems to make sense on its face. You spend time walking to and from the printer. Therefore, printers should be located to minimize the total time people spend in transit, which could mean moving the printer closer to the heavy users of printing. Then those people can spend more time at their desks being productive.

But there is a serious fallacy in this argument: the assumption that the constraint on productivity is time at your desk. Let’s leave aside the issue of whether you are productive walking to the printer. The more serious issue is that you aren’t equally productive the whole time you sit at your desk. What if you spend your extra two minutes (in reduced time picking up printouts) at I Can Has Cheezburger?

In other words, doing X may save you time, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll then fill that time with productive work. This seems simple but many efficiency-obsessed people forget it.

Here are few random, current thoughts on the topic:

1. Each morning I write down the 4-5 things I want to accomplish in the day. I try to make it realistic. The idea is to define "done." Otherwise, I will always feel like there's more work I should do before going to bed. Here's a related HBS post titled An 18 Minute Plan to Managing Your Day.

2. My guess is even talented and productive people can do only a few hours of hard, real focus work per day and a few more hours of medium-focus per day. The rest is time wasting.

3. I use Toggl to track my time. It's excellent. I turn on the virtual stopwatch when I work on certain projects and turn off the moment I do something else, so I get an accurate look at how much time I'm investing in certain projects. It also puts me in a state of mind: when the stopwatch goes on, email goes off, and so does random web browsing. Eventually, perhaps I can be like Jim Collins and carry around a real stopwatch with me. Toli Galanis uses this stopwatch.

4. I get little to no value out of RescueTime.

5. Alain de Botton is one of the best Twitterers out there, and I agree wholeheratedly with this missive: "One of the greater problems of the age: how to concentrate…"

17 comments on “The Myth of Efficiency
  • Printers, by themselves catalyze inefficiency. In many offices, printers are kept away from its heavy users to convert them into light users by tempting them to store stuff digitally. Except in a handful of exceptional cases where evidence has to be produced in hard copy (say before a Court of law) or identity has to be verified by signature attestation or for printing $ bills, printed format has no right to exist. That way you can save on paper and deplete HP’s excessive bottomline.

  • I’ve found that most people work in productive bursts, followed by some inevitable downtime. Thus trying to batch all your productive work into one sitting rarely works and just leads to burnout. Instead of time management, I think the goal is to increase the length of these bursts and minimize (but not eliminate) the downtime.

  • No conclusions drawn. Interesting. We can use each second of our day productively if we know what we want out of life.

    Create a goal.
    Plan your days/weeks based on attaining that goal.


  • More time I invest in a deal, more accurate and qualitative it will be done. The problem is to evaluate acceptable level of quality. In particular, it’s hardly for me to finish a deal until it really appears “best of the best”. Every little task swallows me in a such way. 🙁

  • It’s the old joke once again. “If you woke up 5 minutes earlier each day, you’d have a whole more day of time each year. Which you’d probably spend sleeping.”

  • On watches: I wear a Coleman watch, which is inexpensive, rugged, comes with a built-in stopwatch, compass (which I use often in unfamiliar places), multiple alarms, countdown, and several other features. Overall, I find it extremely well designed, although it’s not fashionable. Typically costs about $20. Unfortunately, I can’t find this exact watch on Amazon, and it’s been a while since I lived in the US, but I seem to recall them being available at both Target and Walmart.

  • Great post, as usual.

    After years of making the same mistakes over and over, I have just recently had it finally sink into my brain that I consistently overestimate the amount of stuff that I can accomplish in a day or a week. I begin every week and everyday by writing out the things that I want to accomplish. I only end up accomplishing about 20-25% of the things that I think that I can do in the span of 24 hours.

    I’m not sure why my brain seems to have such a hard time estimating the length of time it takes to do something (I’m worse than the average person in this regard), but it is frustrating for sure. I have an urge to be optimistic in the things that I can get done…but then let down when I see what reality looks like.

    I haven’t found a balance yet…

    PS. Ben Casnocha’s blog is like McDonalds, in a good way. I know that everytime I go there, I’m getting served the same great stuff everytime. Very consistent in that regard…

  • These arguments ignore the fact that we are discussing brains in bodies. The whole human needs a physical break from sitting at a work station. Walking to the printer allows the brain to refresh itself while the body is engaged in some mild aerobic exercise. During that time, the brain may even be problem-solving.

  • Achieve the high level of efficiency required continuous improvement in the working environment especially dealing with time and resources management, therefore, I rely on a good time tracking software Buddy Punch (, for me a good time management leads to high level of efficiency for an organization.

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