The Curse of Productivity: When ‘Optimization’ Holds You Back

It's possible to be too productive.

You’re a rational person right? You want to get better at what you do. You want to be a productivity Ninja. You’ve read all the articles you can find online promising productivity tips. You know all 66 personal development habits for smart people. You know how to send emails while on a Skype conference call while texting! In short, you’re basically a productivity machine. And you spend a lot of time, energy, and money becoming more efficient. But for what?

At a certain point the returns of increasing your productivity outweigh the potential gains. It’s easy to get to a base level of competence. The Pareto principle, named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, means that you’ll see 80% of your productivity gains with 20 percent of the effort. This means you can get to some base level of competence with relatively little effort. The next 20 percent of the gains, however, involve most of the time. In other words, you might be spending more time than you save.

The best thing about being productive is that once you have an established habit or routine, it requires less little mental energy. You can do it, as they say, with your eyes closed. Yet too much emphasis on productivity can backfire. Not only will you miss the forest for the trees but you’ll be more resistant to change.

We tend to think that if we optimize a task or job and do it faster we’ll be able to use that time on something else. If I can find a way to do X, say, in half the time, I’ll have twice as much time to do what I love. That’s what we tell ourselves anyways. 

This is a myth that ignores two crucial things. First, the time investment required to gain that extra efficiency might be more than the time you’re going to save. It’s one thing to put ten hours of effort into something that will save you hundreds of hours later. It’s entirely another thing to put the same ten hours into saving yourself 5 minutes a week. The returns just don’t add up.

Second, reality often doesn’t cooperate. If you work in a large organization, despite what you think, your boss is probably not a dolt. If you’re way more effective at X than Y, you can expect to get a lot more of X. Any time savings you imagined in your head become largely illusory. You work harder but you don’t advance. As David Foster Wallace said, “Bees have to move very fast to stay in the same place.” This is known as the Red Queen Effect

The old saying time is money still kicks around for a reason. Think of time as an investment. All of the time you put in getting more productive has an opportunity cost. You could invest it getting more productive, sure. But at what cost? You could be doing something else with this time. And if you think about what you’re really paid for you might reconsider how you spend your time. 

Computers are quickly nipping at our heels to replace us on mundane and routine tasks that that are easily programmable. In response we need to move to higher ground. We need to become good at things computers are not good at. Beyond a certain point being efficient is only a good thing if it helps you come up with new ideas. Let computers do the work while you play. 

Often we’re so efficient that we miss out on the serendipitous discoveries of combinational play.  If the rational you, in an effort to become as efficient as possible, works too hard and too efficiently, not only will you miss out on fun but you’ll be less creative.  And the creative space is where you can do what computers can’t — where we experiment with new ways of doing things rather than getting better at the old way. This is where you add value in the knowledge economy. 

One of the keys to creativity is exposure. In A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb wrote, “The … important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.” Old elements, in this case, are things you’ve seen before. Often these come from different domains. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t invest your time in being productive. I am arguing that you should remember that your time has an opportunity cost. Put in the effort to become reasonably competent and efficient. Call this the minimum effective dose. But remember a lot of the time we spend getting better beyond this is wasted.

In the past we could afford this inefficiency. Jobs were stable. The costs to investing too much were low. Now computers are doing things better than we can. The costs to wasted time is higher. That’s time that could be spent learning to do what computers cannot. That’s where we’re going to add value in the next 50 years. 

Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. Join over 33,000 other smart subscribers and sign up for brain food.

The Curse of Productivity: When ‘Optimization’ Holds You Back