Is Efficiency a Good Thing?

Even if you're not like me, with an innate love of efficiency for its own sake, you probably recognize that it's generally considered "good." For instance, a factory that can produce 10,000 Barbie dolls in the same time allowance and at the same (marginal) cost as a factory that can produce 5,000 Barbie dolls is more efficient, and therefore "better."

I'm going to argue that idolizing efficiency is not as simple as I made it sound in the Barbie doll example and then I'll go over some problematic thoughts and actions of which I'll encourage you to be aware.

What could possibly be wrong with getting more outputs with the same inputs?!


Any time we make normative distinctions, that is, we say "this is better than that," we do so relative to a certain desired quality. When we say Factory A is more efficient than Factory B, we make that distinction relative to its rate of production. That works fine when everything else is equal, but that's not the case with our factory example, is it? I said that the time allowance and marginal cost are equal, but I didn't say everything else is equal, too. Yet how many people, reading that example, would say that we don't have enough information to decide which is better.

That's natural. If we go into something already decided that we're going to make a normative distinction, then we act on the information available to us. I don't think it's irrational. It can just be dangerous.

To take another example, think about a time when you tried to maximize your resources by packing your day full of activities and tasks. If you sleep 9 hours/night, your day is 15 hours long. That's roughly constant from day to day, so we can assume your time allowance on a given day is 15 hours. One day you might pack your schedule with meetings, lunch and dinner dates, a big project, going to the gym, and so on. You pack it with productive tasks and events from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep. Every second is planned out and you sprint from place to place because walking wastes time and running is better exercise anyways. You brush your teeth while you pee and make calls while you commute. You're a busy person whose trying to accomplish  lot and you don't have a moment to waste.

Now think about a time when you planned nothing in advance. After waking up, you laze around for a bit, flitting between reading a book and watching TV. In the early afternoon you go for a stroll with a friend or your SO, pay some bills that are coming due soon, and parse through your closet trying clothes on to maybe donate a couple pieces. At the end of the day, you can't really think of anything you accomplished. "The day," you think, "was wasted."

But remember: whenever you make a normative distinction, you do it relative to a particular quality! Sure, you can measure the days against each other relative to tasks completed. That's probably the most obvious way to measure efficiency. Under that metric Day 1 was more efficient (and "better") than Day 2.

Use a different metric, though, and you get a different result. If you measure the days against each other relative to willpower efficiency, then Day 2 was more efficient. On Day 1 you had to expend an inordinate quantity of willpower to stay on task constantly, without break. You'll pay the cost of that over the several days that follow. Day 2, on the other hand, will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to hit the ground running the next day.

Maximizing Efficiency is Overrated


I don't really want to go into this, but I do want to emphasize that most of the times you try to maximize efficiency in your life, there are hidden costs to doing so. Any positive quality not selected as a metric for efficiency gets sideswiped. It's more than: "sometimes it's nice just to kick back and enjoy the moment without trying to be efficient." It's that even when you're trying to be efficient, it's easy to overvalue the product and undervalue the costs.

But it's also nice sometimes to just kick back and enjoy the moment with out worrying about efficiency.