Diamond-Cut Life

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When Efficiency Hurts Us

October 27th, 2013 by Alison · 7 Comments · climate change (global warming), health & well being, relationships

Do you want to be kissed efficiently? Me neither.

We want to be efficient, right? Efficient means we are smart, not wasting any precious effort, getting on to our next important task as quickly as possible. Our culture is built on efficiency.

But does efficiency make us rich in what matters?

Let’s start with physicality. How do our bodies respond to the Efficiency Directive? My commute involves bicycling a few mornings a week to my carpool partner’s house. I pedal my heavy, inexpensive bike up the hill of Mount Tabor, breathing hard, thighs burning. A guy with a light, pricey bike zips past me. He’s climbing the hill efficiently. But I’m getting the better workout. The point of exercise is to work hard, not to minimize the work by being efficient.

While we’re on the subject of bodies, how about efficiency in lovemaking? The joy of a quickie notwithstanding, do we want our lover to be as efficient as possible? No. Lovemaking works better with a languorous approach, in which we let the here and now expand, rather than be compacted. Watching the clock doesn’t work.

The more efficiently we extract fossil fuels, the faster we drive climate change. Why worship efficiency?

Let’s look at extracting the earth’s resources. ExxonMobil and its competitors are extremely efficient at extracting fossil fuels, refining and transporting them so they can be burned. In fact, ExxonMobil was the most profitable company in the U.S. the last time I looked. Efficient fossil fuel extraction makes some people very dollar-rich. But it has also created climate change, probably the greatest threat to civilization that humanity has yet faced. Not a good endorsement here for the Efficiency Directive.

Then there’s spirituality. When we pray or meditate, we are courting the presence of God. Like a lover, God doesn’t respond well to being rushed. My minister Tim tells me that in writing a sermon, his goal is actually to be inefficient. The sermon-writing process brings him closer to God. Why would he court efficiency, rather than his Creator?

There are definitely times and places that our culture’s Efficiency Directive works well. Putting out fires, cleaning up poop, and performing surgeries are all good things to do efficiently. And the efficient automation that has replaced brutal manual labor, the kind that breaks people’s bodies down, is a good thing.

But adopting the Efficiency Directive blindly, the way we tend to do in our culture, can make us poor in the things that matter most. It can block our spirituality and our closeness to loved ones. It leads us to abuse the earth’s resources, rather than steward them. Our efficiency-driven aversion to physical activity has created sitting disease and our obesity epidemic. In my own life I take a critical, diamond-cut eye to our culture’s pressure to be efficient.

Over to you: how do you experience the Efficiency Directive? When do you find that efficiency makes you poorer, or richer, in what matters most to you?

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Kathy

    Hi Alison,
    So I have to (playfully) beg to differ with you regarding your point between a pricey, light weight, zippy bike versus a slow, heavy, inexpensive bike. Regardless of the weight of my bike, going up a steep hill never really gets easier. For sure, I climb the hill faster on my speedster than on my commuter. But I still have to expend as much energy to get up the hill. On my speedster, less of my energy is spent overcoming gravity, the weight of my bike, and the resistance of my fatter tires so I go up faster and more efficiently. On my commuter more energy is spent just overcoming the gravity, resistance etc. so I ascend more slowly. Either way I’m getting a great workout. The difference is that one is a slow, painful slog that causes me to curse under my breath while the other is a zippy, joyful feat that makes my heart sing! A singing heart is a pretty good indicator being rich in what matters, no? :) I love my commuter just as much as my speedster. In fact if I had to choose just one, it would be my commuter. But my speedster allows me expand the joy and blessings I gain from the sport of cycling.

    Nonetheless, your point re. our culture’s obsession with efficiency is well-taken. Denise and I used to get into tiffs sometimes when it came to doing our Saturday chores. Her approach is to divide and conquer which meant one of us stayed home and madly swept, mopped, vacuumed and scrubbed while the other headed out to do the grocery shopping and run the errands. My preference is to share in the cleaning chores at home and then head out together to do the shopping and errands. She could not understand this at all b/c it was so much less efficient. But to me, spending the time together was important. And doing the work along side each other while listening to Saturday OPB programming made the chores less, well, chore-ful. She would often win me over to her view with the fact that if we spent less time doing the chores, we would have more time to spend together doing something more enjoyable than chores. Like a bike ride!

    Also, I loved your “courting the presence of God” line. So perfectly descriptive of what mediation and prayer are all about, for me anyway. And, of course, the mention of Tim renews my fondness of Sunday mornings and LSUMC. I miss all of you and what goes on there on Sunday mornings.

    • Alison


      I love that you see the bike thing differently than I do. I do agree that a “good bike” feels better than a heavy bike. I have no need to try to change your opinion concerning bikes! :)

      About you and Denise: for one thing, I always feel good, strange as this may sound, when people mention tiffs with their partners. Small disputes are so much a part of my 11 year long life with Thor that I feel reassured and validated to hear other people have them too (it makes me more normal).

      Both your and Denise’s approaches to chores make sense. Sometimes efficiency helps us; sometimes it hurts us. I really smile at this part of your comment: “. . . have more time to spend together doing something more enjoyable than chores. Like a bike ride!” — Because bike riding is THE outdoor thing that Thor and I can do together (his knee means he can no longer hike, and he’s never been a runner, or a dancer). Naturally, we all want to maximize our outdoor time with our partners, and sometimes efficiency creates that maximum time. Or, sometimes that efficiency-drive just feels like more of the rat-race. It’s complex.

      Glad you resonate to “courting the presence of God”. I felt your presence strongly at Lincoln Street church yesterday morning when our minister Tim invited everyone to consider joining the spiritual growth group (BELLS) that will start December 1st. I remember clearly how when he first brought up BELLS a couple months ago, you and I immediately started buzzing together about it, like happy, excited bees who had scented good pollen. I’ll email you separately to coordinate BELLS further. Thanks for your good, juicy comment, Kathy.

  • Colleen

    I love these “big concept” posts! They help me examine my own choices and behavior in our culture. One of your favorite phrases, “both/and” comes to mind when I think about efficiency, as some activities are both efficient and not-so-efficient at the same time. An example of this would be our method of heating our entire home by using storm-downed trees from our large property as firewood in our wood stove. An efficient use of nature’s available resources? Sure, but cutting up the fallen trees and then hauling out the pieces from our steep-sloped forests (and then splitting and stacking the wood so it can dry for several months) is HARD, time-consuming work. Perhaps it’s not the most efficient use of our available time. But, like your bike-ride to your carpool, it’s a great form of outdoor exercise *while* getting something done. There’s the added benefit of husband-and-wife teamwork, which brings us closer. And whenever I put a piece of wood on the fire, I appreciate the effort it took to simply have it in my hand. The sum total of all the hard work: I’m richer in what matters — and enjoy each cozy fire all the more.

    • Alison

      Colleen, I love your story. It’s a great all-around example of making an intentional choice to be rich in what matters. Looking forward to the next time I enjoy your cozy fire with you.

  • Mike

    Good post, Alison! Whether bike riding or making love or numerous other activities in life. I think there is far more value in “stopping to smell the roses” in the moment vs just being efficient. I liked this one :)

  • Debra Yearwood

    Great post Alison and one worth thinking about. I went to the work place with the concept of efficiency. There are definitely benefits for staff and clients in creating more efficiency in how things get done. In my particular situation it can mean that the nurse or personal support worker spends more time with a client providing care instead of managing administrative functions. It can also mean precisely the opposite, which is increasing the pressure on frontline workers to complete visits faster. The message they get is, provide quality care, but provide it to as many clients as you can in the shortest period of time.

    It creates a challenging dynamic between the human in the field looking into the eyes of the client and the human in the office looking at the productivity chart. The challenge is that in order to be around to deliver that care at all, we are obliged to be more efficient. Healthcare isn’t cheap. How do you balance the efficiency challenge when the thing you need (really need, not just think you need as with our over consumption of fossil fuels) is also scarce? Clients need the care and the time, but if its given too generously, then someone else won’t receive it. There are times when efficiency is simultaneously a blessing and a curse.

    • Alison

      Debra, thank you for grappling with the complexity of efficiency, and with its paradoxical nature. What DO we do when the thing — the resource — we really need (not just think we need) is scarce? We try to use the resource wisely, and then we translate “wisely” as “efficiently”.

      But I’m not convinced that wisely and efficiently are the same thing. I wonder: why do health care costs keep going up? From what I can see, enormous profits get made by pharmaceutical companies and by some other parts of the health industry. Those huge profits are at odds with the scarcity problems at issue here. I think that our culture creates scarcity in certain areas by being addicted to large profits in other, related areas. Then efficiency becomes the mantra that lets the whole, skewed system stay in place, instead of being challenged and reworked.

      I do agree with you that efficiency can be both a blessing and a curse. I always appreciate your deep thinking and real-life examples, Debra. I’ll go read your latest blog-post within the weekend.

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