– Getting too much done?

In high school, I had a clerk’s job at the Leicester Pharmacy in the center of our town. It was about three miles away from our house. To get there, often I drove or got driven. Once in a while, I walked and took the lovely meandering way: up our street, down the dirt road that connected our circle to the newer Cricklewood development, out onto Pine Street, a detour through the old cemetery, and then back up Pine Street to where it met Main. If it was autumn, I’d kick the fallen leaves as I walked, in no hurry at all. As I strolled, I thought my thoughts. I hummed to myself, bothering no one.

Last Thursday night, one of my office mates Karen and I were talking about our teenager children as we tidied up the piles on our desks. Their lives, to us, seem to be like full-time jobs, plus moonlighting. Busy, rushing from task to task, sleepless. No time to think their thoughts. Like the present-day us.

About 12 years ago, when my oldest child (now 17), was a little boy, my friend Martha Mulligan and I were feeling the pressure from our culture to get stuff done, gracefully and in multiples. (This was before the GTD system was even a gleam in David Allen’s eye.) We felt ourselves to be failing more than meeting expectations. Mirthful over our own daily inefficiencies, together (and probably with Eric and Jimmy, too) we came up with an idea for a humor book, with illustrations, called Maximize Your Inefficiencies. Martha billed it as “the Dilbert for your home life.”

I still have the file. I dug it out.

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Martha and I planned for 101 inefficient items, perhaps one per page. It would be like a coupon or flip book, the kind you can purchase on impulse at the counter of a book or gift store. I see in all the notes that we had more than enough material for this little gag book. I’ll list some here, in no particular order, so you can get the idea.

  1. Have a kid.
  2. Bake from scratch.
  3. Allow food to dry on plates before washing.
  4. Start a new project before finishing another.
  5. Fix a mistake you made earlier in life.
  6. Answer the telephone between 7 and 8pm.
  7. Nightly prepare different meals for the different tastes in your household.
  8. Buy only clothes with the care tag “Hand wash. Line dry.”
  9. Get a low flush toilet. [Editorial note: this was in the 1990s, when the low flush technology had not yet been optimized.]
  10. Answer questions on warranty cards. Send them in.
  11. Go to more than one supermarket.
  12. Create a web page for your pets.
  13. Serve on a committee.
  14. Sew a child’s Halloween costume.
  15. Designate your dining room as a mail, craft, and gear depot.
  16. Wear contact lenses.
  17. Rinse out your returnable bottles.
  18. Try recipes that feature trace amounts of exotic ingredients sold only in 8 or 12oz. jars.
  19. Contest a $15 parking ticket.
  20. Improve yourself.

And so on. (In the file, there’s also the draft of a scheme for organizing the inefficiencies into categories: Work, Health, Leisure, Food, Civic, etc.)

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Why didn’t Martha and I ever follow through on this — finish and publish it? (We had even lined up an illustrator.)  I can’t speak for her, but I know that I lost my belief in an idea for a book that we would put a lot of time into but that would pretty quickly find its way onto the remainder table or into a recycling bin. The book itself seemed to be one big inefficiency.

And yet I can’t say that I have since become the super efficient person that contemporary values seem to demand.  Like so many people I know, I feel constantly that I’m falling behind in some sort of master schedule for all aspects of my life. (I have said, only half jokingly, that I’m going to die with about a week’s worth of outstanding items on my To Do list.)

Did I think about this — everything that needs to be done — when I was 17 and walking to my pharmacy job? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s possible that I was fretting about an upcoming band concert or my college application essays. It may be that there was nothing special about life then, in 1982 or so, and that the little scene that starts this post — of me kicking leaves and meandering through the Pine Grove Cemetery — says more about what I desire today than what I did or felt then.

6 thoughts on “– Getting too much done?

  1. Why are we so sure we know what is efficient? It may be that meandering through the cemetery kicking leaves is the most efficient way of doing something we don’t even know we’re doing, but which matters. Our conscious awareness is overrated if we believe it knows about everything that’s going on. And who sets the goals that define efficiency in our consciousness?

    Don’t forget the ecological concept of “overhead” — the inefficient, redundant, seemingly useless or unsuccessful part of the system becomes its safety margin when the environment changes and those “unnecessary” abilities are suddenly crucial to adaptation. We are in a period when, no matter how you define the word “environment,” it’s changing. Creativity is what matters most here, and creative process is anything but efficient as long as efficiency is defined as doing better what has always been done.

    How often does a creative process involve a period in which “nothing is getting accomplished”? Probably only 99% of the time . . .

    • I’ve been thinking about this Lowry:

      “Our conscious awareness is overrated if we believe it knows about everything that’s going on.”

      And the creative process, too, is probably more indirect than we consciously experience it. (Although there is some directness too.) I often think that, when I’m gardening, I’m getting some writing done. Some weird creative alchemy is occurring, even if I’m not planning on writing about dirt and leaves.

  2. lowrypei may be right. Have you read the book “A Perfect Mess?” It’s not quite the same concept, but the authors talk about, among other things, why messiness and seeming inefficiency can bring about big ideas. And why being efficient can waste a lot of time – cleaning your desk every day takes more time than searching for a document a couple times a month.

  3. Effectiveness is more important than efficiency in my life. I (try to) keep lists, but they’re just sketches of what I need to do. Often I get caught up in the details, which allows me time to think of better ways to accomplish tasks, or get help, or whatever.

    The need for time makes me think of something I learned in typing class in high school. The teacher, frustrated by our urge to bolt through assignments with no regard for errors. He said to start slowly each time and build momentum through the typing session. I still think of that almost every time I type, and it’s become my strategy for approaching pretty much any task. Which is not to say I’m a very patient person; I’ve just developed coping skills.

    A suggestion:
    #22 Write a novel.

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