Last July I was hiking with my family in Southern California. At one point, the trail took us along the edge of a creek bed. Normally, the creek would be flowing but due to drought conditions, the creek had dwindled to a muddy trickle. As we continued down the trail, we came upon the trunk of an uprooted tree that had fallen across the creek bed to form a bridge. We didn’t need to cross the creek to stay on the trail. Despite protests from my wife Katherine, I couldn’t resist the urge to test my balance.
Katherine and I tell different versions of what happened next. What’s indisputable is that I tumbled off the tree trunk, down the side of the creek bed, and into the mud. I landed on something hard because when I jumped to my feet to reassure my family, I felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder. What’s also indisputable is that I will no longer take risky detours when hiking… with my wife.
Three weeks later, a shoulder specialist showed me an x-ray. I had fractured my greater tuberosity. I love the name of that bone. I think it sounds badass when I tell people I broke my greater tuberosity.
It’s been eight months since the fall. The fracture has healed, but my arm stubbornly resists certain movements. For example, I wouldn’t be able to do the chicken dance at the next Oktoberfest. Even though I have no intention of attending an Oktoberfest, I decided to consult my doctor about getting physical therapy.
Wait…Isn’t Efficiency a good thing?
My family doctor recommended a therapist who goes by the name AJ. When he told me that AJ makes house calls, I was sold. AJ, originally from Northern India, is passionate about proper body mechanics. He’s a wealth of information and eager to share it. AJ has an uncanny ability to discern structural anomalies simply by watching you stand or walk. When I took off my mask during a recent visit, AJ looked at my face from across the room and informed me that roof of my mouth was not symmetrical.
When AJ observes me trying an exercise that he’s just taught me, he often tells me to slow down. At one point, while watching me use an exercise band he said, “don’t be efficient.” Ever since that day, I’ve been reflecting on being advised against being efficient.
Would you pay more for an efficient massage?
Throughout my adult working life, I’ve been praised for my efficiency. I’m good at getting sh*t done. I’ve always been rewarded for being efficient. By the way, the reward for efficiently getting work done is getting more work.
The therapeutic benefits of physical therapy depend on slowly reorienting the parts of your body that have been damaged or weakened from disuse. It’s not like hammering a bent piece of metal straight again. Speed, when doing certain physical therapy exercises is counterproductive. Finishing the exercise might feel desirable, but it’s not the goal.
If like me, you’ve made efficiency a calling card, you may find it difficult to break the habit. You know you’re a productivity junkie if you rush through things that are meant to be taken slowly. I love to read. Yet I sometimes find myself speeding through pages of gorgeously written prose so I can get to the next book I’m eager to start. Do I really believe that by adopting this strategy I’ll get to all the books I want to read?
When reading a book or a poem, when visiting an art museum, don’t be efficient.
The Productivity Trap
Oliver Burkeman diagnoses our neurotic relationship to getting things done in his revelatory 2021 book, Four Thousand Weeks; Time Management for Mortals. The title refers to the shockingly few weeks available to us based on our average lifespan. From the title, you might assume that Burkeman is offering a strategy for time management. He’s not. When it comes to managing our time, Burkeman’s advice is simple, don’t bother.
Burkeman believes “Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from [an] effort to avoid the painful constraints of reality. And most of our strategies for becoming more productive make things worse, because they’re really just ways of furthering the avoidance.”
Burkeman’s perspective may sound depressing and fatalistic. I find it liberating. Once you accept that your life’s work is not to get everything done, you can reframe your attitude toward your inbox and your planner. Changing your attitude is a start, but if you’re a hardcore task-list checker, you’ll also need to break some habits. For me, AJ’s coaching rings in my ear like a three-word mantra: Don’t be efficient.
When going for a walk, don’t be efficient
When sitting down to enjoy a meal with friends or family, don’t be efficient
When interrupted by someone who wants your attention, don’t be efficient
Jay G. Cone is the author of The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do; Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos. He is the co-founder of Unstuck Minds.