Sunday, January 01, 2017

Efficiency making things worse

"I sometimes tell students that whether it is at school or work or home, I have found working smart to be way better than working hard" I told my father.  He agreed. Maybe because it is hard work to argue against ;)

The more I think about whatever I take up, it appears that I approach that asking myself, "what do I want to get out of that?"  And I think I chalk up the steps, which makes life not hard but enjoyable.

This approach seems to leave me with lots of time, during which too I am really working.  Reading and thinking all the time is work that sometimes I wish I did not do that often.  But, the work is enjoyable.

Perhaps because of such a life, I have never had to worry about managing my time.  I suspect that anybody will find lots of spare time--as long as they fully grasp their own respective priorities.  When they do not figure out their priorities, people often turn to technology, without realizing that while a technological tool might help them do something better and faster, the tool by itself will not clarify for them their priorities.  Thus, it does not surprise me anymore that people using a lot of gadgets are often the people who are late to appointments, and seem stressed all the time.  It is not the technology's fault.
And yet the truth is that more often than not, techniques designed to enhance one’s personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay.
Yawn; I have been saying this for years!
It’s understandable that we respond to the ratcheting demands of modern life by trying to make ourselves more efficient. But what if all this efficiency just makes things worse?
I have been bothered with the focus on efficiency for a long time.  Right from my graduate school days, as I noted in this post from a while ago.
What is uniquely modern about our fate is that we feel obliged to respond to the pressure of time by making ourselves as efficient as possible – even when doing so fails to bring the promised relief from stress.
I don't ever understand why people feel compelled to do a gazillion things.  These days, it starts right from childhood.  Parents get their kids involved in sports and music and many more activities--all in addition to school.  Kids grow up feeling compelled to do all these, and they are short of time. They feel stressed. They don't have enough sleep; meanwhile, the science is clear about the importance of sleep--for children and for teenagers.  Time management is not the real issue for them.  Kids and their parents ought to be saying, "enough already!"
As the doctrine of efficiency grew entrenched – as the ethos of the market spread to more and more aspects of society, and life became more individualistic – we internalised it. In Taylor’s day, efficiency had been primarily a way to persuade (or bully) other people to do more work in the same amount of time; now it is a regimen that we impose on ourselves.
Yep, we impose on ourselves.  And then we run around complaining about our stress and how we don't have time for a "real life."

If ever we get some free time, then we are screwed up about that too--we think even that ought to be used efficiently!  Whatever happened to the idea that one can simply laze around and be bored if that is what one wants to do?
One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time “productively”, too – an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough. And so we find ourselves, for example, travelling to unfamiliar places not for the sheer experience of travel, but in order to add to our mental storehouse of experiences, or to our Instagram feeds. We go walking or running to improve our health, not for the pleasure of movement; we approach the tasks of parenthood with a fixation on the successful future adults we hope to create.
So, at this point, you are perhaps asking yourself, "why are people so worried about efficient use of time?"  The answer is simple--we know our time on this planet is finite. We die at some point.
As the philosopher Thomas Nagel has put it, on any meaningful timescale other than human life itself – that of the planet, say, or the cosmos – “we will all be dead any minute”. No wonder we are so drawn to the problem of how to make better use of our days: if we could solve it, we could avoid the feeling, in Seneca’s words, of finding life at an end just when we were getting ready to live. To die with the sense of nothing left undone: it’s nothing less than the promise of immortality by other means. ...
Personal productivity presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness. And as such, it serves the same psychological role that busyness has always served: to keep us sufficiently distracted that we don’t have to ask ourselves potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days. “How we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, in what reads like a foreshadowing of our present circumstances. “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”
We are running around because deep down we are running from the very idea of death that we do not want to think about.  On the other hand, if we did not flee from ourselves, we would have a clear priority listing of what we want in life.  And that will give us all the time that we possibly want.  Even to blog like this.

No technological tool can help.
"It’s a people problem. And you can’t fix people.”
Yep, as the elections revealed, you can't fix people!


Ramesh said...

The connection between efficiency as a desirable trait and the way we fill our lives is not as linear as you say.

Efficiency is one of the great qualities of all living beings - every living creature optimises its efforts for maximum rewards. That's what makes the world go around.

But efficiency does not equate to fiddling with gadgets, "filling up" the day with activities, etc etc. That's an entirely different problem altogether and I would argue that's the opposite of efficiency. That people do it is more to do with insecurity, anxiety, etc etc rather than efficiency.

Sriram Khé said...

Your support for efficiency is based on an economic interpretation of "maximum rewards" ... most people equate it that way, which is why there is a phenomenally insane pursuit of such rewards--even if that means that people can't ever see the blue sky; can't hear birds make noises; worry about the water that they drink; ...
The gadgets are very much part of these "maximum rewards" ... so, yes, efficiency, gadgets, anxiety and insecurity, are all inter-related. They are not different ...

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