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?

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