Productivity

The Efficiency Paradox How focusing on efficiency might actually make you LESS efficient

Don’t we all love productivity hacks? It’s almost like a breath of fresh air when we discover a way to more efficiently deal with all the work that keeps overflooding our inbox. But have you ever considered that being more efficient at your work might make you less efficient at achieving your goals?

 

To illustrate this point, let me share a personal story. When I was starting the online math academy Eureka, I needed help with writing all the course material that would go on the website. And since Eureka was a non-profit, I had to convince people to do this service for free. It was not a very compelling deal, so I thought the more people I reach out to, the higher the likelihood that I will find a few brave souls to join me on this mission. I therefore looked up the student register of the math programs of all the major colleges, and then email-blasted my pitch to become a Eureka volunteer to Every. Single. Student.

To make my emailing more efficient, I crafted an email template, bought a software that could mass-duplicate email drafts, and created personalized shortkeys that would, for example, would type “Stockholm University” when I wrote “su”. Let’s go productivity hacks!

The result? After 1,000+ emails sent, I had gotten two volunteers (one of which dropped out), and I ended up with just one math course.

I then received an opportunity to pitch Eureka to a weekend math program for students who had previously competed in a big math contest. That pitch took me 30 minutes to do, and immediately got me four new volunteers (two of which wrote multiple lessons), and I ended up with six great math courses.

If you run the math, you’ll find that this second approach was 480 times as efficient at achieving my goal of getting lessons for the Eureka website.

If you are working on a problem that’s inefficient for reaching your goal, it doesn’t really matter how efficiently you can do the work. You are still producing inefficient results.

A more efficient way to reach your goal is to find a better problem to solve.

The hierarchy of productivity

A more productive way to approach our work is to:

  1. First, identify a problem that – if you solved it – would be a major step in achieving your goal.
  2. Then, design a system to solve that problem as efficiently as possible.

I call this the “Hierarchy of Productivity”, which can be illustrated with the following pyramid:

If the base of your Productivity Pyramid is small and feeble – i.e you are solving a bad problem – then the impact of all the work you produce on top of that base will also be small and feeble.

Designing a more efficient system can make your inefficient approach suck less. But don’t expect it to compensate for more than 2% of the productivity you lost by choosing the wrong problem. The remaining 98% you will have to make up for by working more hours.

This is what happened to me. The problem I had been working on was: “How can I send out as many cold emails as fast as possible?”. But the problem I should have been solving was: “Where can I find the right audience to pitch Eureka to?”.

Designing a more efficient emailing system made me 10X faster at emailing. That seems like a great improvement! But compared to finding a better audience, I had merely gone from being 4,800X less efficient at sourcing math courses to 480X less efficient.

Being more efficient only compensated for 0.18% of all the productivity I lost by choosing the wrong problem. The rest I had to make up for by working more hours.

The efficiency trap

My story is just one of many examples of how we can fall prey to the “efficiency trap”. That is, we believe that the problem we are currently solving is good enough, and whenever we find a way to solve that problem more efficiently, it feels like a huge win. When I got 10X faster at emailing, that felt like a great leap forward. And being as busy as we are, that feeling of progress is addicitve.

The problem with productivity hacks is that they blind us from seeing just how inefficient the base we are starting from is. My base was 4800 times less efficient. Optimize all you want – there is no way you will climb out of from such a deeply inefficient hole.

That is why I believe we should treat productivity hacks with a very healthy dose of skepticism. More efficient practices can make your current approach suck less. But if you are working on an inefficient problem, no amount of productivity hacks will ever compensate for all that lost productivity.

What better problem could you solve?

Think of an area in your life where you wish you were productive. Now, can you find a new problem that – if you solved it – would result in much more progress towards your goal than if you kept solving your current problem?

Imagine if you, like me, discovered a problem that was 100X, or 10,000X, more efficient at achieving the goal that matters.

How would that change your life?


Change Your Questions – Change Your Life: Part 5 To solve your toughest problems, change the problems you solve

Questions have incredible power in our lives. And perhaps no more so than when it comes to solving problems. 

Imagine that you are the owner of an office building, and your tenants are complaining about the elevator. It’s old and slow, and they have to wait a lot. Several tenants are threatening to break their leases if you don’t fix the problem. So what do you do? 

The obvious solution is to make the elevator go faster. For example: replace the lift, install a stronger motor, or upgrade the computer that runs the lift. This is how we typically solve problems. We draw a frame around them – “The elevator is too slow” – and then we explore that frame to find solutions.

However, if you present this problem to building managers, they will suggest a much more elegant solution: Put up mirrors next to the elevator. This simple trick has proved remarkably effective in reducing complaints, because people tend to lose track of time when given something utterly fascinating to look at – namely, themselves.

This approach presents another way to solve problems: breaking the frame. The mirror doesn’t make the elevator faster – it solves a different, perhaps more fundamental problem, namely that people notice the wait. 

All problems can be solved in one of two ways: 1) exploring the frame, or 2) breaking the frame. For simple problems, exploring the frame is usually enough. But if you are stuck with a big, hairy problem with no simple solution in sight, that’s when you should consider breaking the frame. 

So how do you break the frame? I can suggest three practices that I’ve found particularly helpful:

1. Refuse to accept complex solutions

A healthy habit in problem-solving is to always think: “There must be an easier way.” Imagine if the landlord had just accepted his tenants’ complaints and face value and hired an elevator service firm to upgrade the elevator. The expense would have been enormous and might still not have solved the problem. By refusing to accept complex solutions, you open the door to simpler ones.

2. Examine the emotions behind the problem

We call something a “problem” only when it makes us experience a negative emotion. Zooming in on what that emotion is can open up doors to alternative solutions. For example, when the tenants complained about the elevator, what they said was: “The elevator is too slow.” But “too slow” is not a negative emotion. What they were really complaining about was being bored. Pinpointing that negative emotion is the clue we need to reframe the problem as: “People feel bored while waiting for the elevator.” With this problem statement, now the mirror becomes a much more obvious solution.

3. Look for the bright spots

The start of Tania and Brian Luna’s otherwise happy marriage was plagued by a recurring issue: they occasionally got into big fights about small things like cleaning, spending, or dog care. And while every couple fights sometimes, both Tania and Brian felt that their conflicts too often became needlessly bitter. What helped them solve this problem was finding a positive exception to the rule:

Tania: “One day we had a conversation over breakfast about our budget—and it was so smooth and painless. The same topic that seemed impossibly complex and upsetting at night was easy after we slept and ate. That made us pause and rethink what was going on. We soon realized what most of our arguments had in common: they were happening after ten in the evening. We didn’t fight because of our different values. We fought because we were sleepy, hungry, and therefore cranky.”

Looking for the bright spots by asking: “When or where does the problem not happen?” can be a great way to find hidden solutions.

 

Most of the problems we face can be solved by exploring our initial framing. But the next time you find yourself stuck on a tough nut and no good way out, know that you can also break the frame. And three different tools you can use to unscrew and smash that initial frame are:

  1. Refuse to accept complex solutions

  2. Examine the emotions behind the problem

  3. Look for the bright spots

Happy problem-solving! 😃


Many of the concepts and examples in this article come from the excellent work on problem-solving by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg.