We live in a world so efficient I can use my phone to buy a gift from the comfort of my sofa, and have it appear on my doorstep later that day. I can plan, research and book a trip across the globe from my kitchen table. I can check my tax returns in bed if I really want to. When it comes to more domestic matters, cooking, cleaning and laundry took nearly 60 hours per week in 1900, whereas the range of labour saving devices in our modern day homes reduce this to about 15.
Praising inefficiency may therefore seem an odd position to take, so I should point out that I’m certainly not against the efficiencies that technology has brought us, however I wonder what happens with all of the free time we are left with, and what message a relentless advance towards efficiency sends out.
Many of the efficient systems in our life reduce our physical activity, meaning we’re living more sedentary lifestyles. Unless you use your smartphone when running or cycling, or you’re still playing ‘Pokemon Go’, it’s likely that a lot of your free time with technology will be spent sitting down.
Indeed, one of the unintended consequences of these efficiencies is that for many of us we need to choose to be healthy rather than it happening as a result of all our daily activities. Last year a British Heart Foundation report noted that 20 million UK adults are now classed as physically inactive, that’s almost 40% of the population. Efficiency has saved us a lot of effort, but some of that work was keeping us healthy.
If we’re working 80 hours a week and never have time to relax on the sofa, go for a walk, or read a magazine, we may be amazingly efficient, but an important part of life is neglected.
Being able to access work e-mails on your phone may be convenient, and it may enable you to work during your commute, but does that efficiency mean you work fewer hours, or are you spending your commuting time just keeping up? The TUC reported in 2015 that the number of people working more than 48 hours per week rose by 15% in just 5 years, up to nearly 3.5 million people.
If we’re so efficient why aren’t we going home sooner?
Efficiency begets more efficiency. If it was good to complete that task in two weeks instead of three, the question then becomes “Can we do it in one week next time?” rather than “should we?”
The way we know we’re efficient is by measuring. The things that are easiest to measure are time, performance and money. A focus on these things undervalues human relationships, feelings and things that are uncertain, as they’re not easily measurable.
When meeting to organise an event or run a committee, it would be far more efficient to get straight down to business, and for everyone to go their separate ways straight afterwards. However we chat and pass the time with others because we realise that relationships and people are important, even if they’re not efficient!
There’s an important place for efficiency. We want and need things in life to be reliable and efficient. However inefficiency has a place too. If we’re working 80 hours a week and never have time to relax on the sofa, go for a walk, or read a magazine, we may be amazingly efficient, but an important part of life is neglected.
Inefficiency is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “Not achieving maximum productivity; wasting or failing to make the best use of time or resources”. However, I’d like to suggest that doing nothing, relaxing, staring at the trees outside of your window, reading a good book, or just spending time with friends and family can be the best use of your resources if it brings you happiness and contentment.
So where’s the balance? Who says enough is enough? The truth is you do. Perhaps if we saw inefficiency as an important counterbalance to efficiency we could embrace it and be more accepting of ourselves when we fall short of the efficient ideal.
Chris Mounsher is a BACP registered humanistic counsellor working in private practice in Brighton and Haywards Heath. He offers both long term and short term counselling and has particular experience working with anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.
You can read more from Chris on his website , or follow him on twitter.