Don’t Be Efficient

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.

Before

After

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

The Most Important Leadership Skill No One Has Heard of…Yet

You can’t survey people on the importance of a leadership skill they’ve never heard of. It would be like asking marketing executives in the 1990s to rate the importance of search engine optimization.

Today, empathy is topping the surveys of in-demand leadership skills. It’s not surprising that in chaotic times people want leaders who care. I for one, hope that the popularity of empathy as a leadership skill gives rise to kinder, more inclusive organizations. I don’t expect empathy to go out of fashion. Still, those of us who help leaders and organizations prepare for the future need to think about skills that might not be on anyone’s radar screen.

I want to nominate a skill that I believe will become indispensable for tomorrow’s leaders. Like empathy, It’s the type of skill that starts with self-awareness. Developing this skill will require us to learn how to notice and interrupt counterproductive habits of perception.

Allow me to introduce, attention agility.

What is attention agility?

Attention agility is the skill of quickly and easily regulating how you take in information. Like mindfulness, attention agility brings awareness to what most often goes unnoticed. Also like mindfulness, attention agility demands that we become aware of how we pay attention, and that we learn to sense when we may be focused on the wrong things.

With the advent of the internet, the ubiquity of smartphones, and the rise of social media, the topic of attention has gotten, well, a lot of attention. A Google Scholar search of articles and books written in the early days of the internet (1990 – 1993) using the search term “attention” came back with 432,000 results. Conducting a search across the same number of years, 2004 – 2007 (roughly, from the introduction of Facebook to the introduction of the first iPhone) generated 4.5 million results!

Attention Matters

Distracted driving is a serious hazard which caused over 3,000 deaths in the U.S. during 2019. We have been experiencing a global spike in attention-deficit disorder diagnoses. Psychologists and neuroscientists have demonstrated the stunning phenomenon known as inattentional blindness, in which we fail to notice fully visible objects because our attention was engaged elsewhere.

The deluge of information feels inescapable. Many have described our current times as the post-truth era. Somehow objective facts have become less influential than appeals to our emotions and beliefs. It’s not that we value objective reality less, it’s that our personal search engines, our attention apparatus, is optimized for threats and outrage.

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll be more discerning consumers of information and influence. When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

Modes of attention

In 1890, American psychologist, William James devoted a chapter of his classic, The Principles of Psychology to the topic of attention. James made a distinction between passive attention and voluntary attention.

Passive attention is aimless, it floats like a butterfly. Voluntary attention targets and locks on, it stings like a bee. William James as interpreted by Muhammed Ali.

Imagine a walk in a beautiful, natural landscape. You suddenly become aware of the smell of an unusual flower alongside the trail (passive). You pull out your phone to look up the name of the flower (voluntary). You put the phone away and allow the environment to present itself to you (passive). This back-and-forth between focusing and unfocusing is what it feels like to regulate your attention. When you learn to switch modes easily and intentionally in a variety of situations, you’ve developed attention agility.

Why is attention agility important?

First, we have never had more information competing for our attention. Secondly, our brains have evolved to narrow our attention in times of stress and anxiety. As our information-rich world imposes itself on our overtaxed brains, we lose the ability to assess the validity of what we notice. Furthermore, it’s hard to appreciate the opportunity cost of what we don’t notice.

What William James called voluntary attention has always been prized by our teachers and our managers. We reward the ability to concentrate. We consider distraction a deficiency. We admire decision makers who create mental boundaries so they can include the relevant variables without the burden of extraneous thoughts or emotions. It makes perfect sense to value the ability to stay on task, but only if we’re working on the right task.

When we know what we want to accomplish, voluntary attention helps us focus. When we feel stuck, when our situation is changing quickly, and the future feels completely unpredictable, voluntary attention could point our focus in the wrong direction.

Consider the challenge many organizational leaders are facing today as they try to figure out how and where people will work when the pandemic no longer dictates the rules for convening. What should leaders pay attention to: Real estate costs? Worker productivity? Technology? Morale? Probably, all the above and more. Solving for the future of workspaces calls for a blend of voluntary attention and passive attention. Aimless, butterfly-like attention may surface hidden insights and creative options that suggest a way forward. Once you see a way forward, engaging your voluntary attention will help you implement a plan of action.

The Ascendance of Passive Attention

You know who is great at staying on task? Machines.

We don’t want to reduce the amount of information available to us. We’re already developing artificial intelligence (AI) to help us sort and package information so we can digest it. Machine learning makes AI more intelligent as it processes information and gets feedback about the utility of its outputs. So far, machine learning is a goal-seeking activity. Computer programs apply voluntary attention to data.

Would an artificially intelligent android pause while hiking to smell a flower? We pause because we have a passive attention mode that is not goal oriented. Passive attention gives us pause. The pause may give us something beneficial that we weren’t looking for.

Maybe there will come a day when a machine notices something it wasn’t looking for. For now, serendipity belongs exclusively to humans. We have plenty of strategies, tools, dietary supplements, and smartphone apps to build up our voluntary attention capacity. What we lack is a way to productively distract ourselves when the glare of our voluntary-attention high-beams blinds us to interesting information and insightful ideas alongside the trail.