The Folly of Efficiency

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We don’t have enough time to do everything we want to do. But is it a mistake to prioritise and optimise based on what has to be an incomplete understanding of all the factors and limitations we’re faced with? What are we missing out on for the sake of efficiency?

These thoughts were provoked by Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. — Neils Bohr

Predicting the future seems tricky, although we do it all the time. Our guesses about the short term are usually quite accurate — otherwise driving in traffic would be impossible. Similarly we can usually predict how we will be treated by those we know.

In general the average is an OK guide to what will happen. But…sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes when the future isn’t predictable it matters a lot. And so we keep an eye on the traffic ahead. And it is better to have a few friends rather than just one. On any particular day our friends won’t be sick, but sometime they will be (and then it will be a good idea to have other people to socialise with).

In brief: it makes sense to spread your risk. This is common sense. Spreading the risk also runs counter to another piece of common sense: don’t waste your time (or other resources) — be efficient.

In our culture much attention is paid to optimising the system, time management (the goal is always to minimise the time taken to do the task), and finding ways to increase return on investment (whether the investment is money, time, attention or energy). We are obsessed with efficiency.

Part of the drive for efficiency is to prioritise. This is based on what is, to me, the incontestable observation that we don’t have enough time to do everything we could possibly want to — and so we need to choose. So we prioritise: we focus on what we care about more, develop key competencies, play to our strengths, and so on. This is sensible but not always wise.

Unpredictability

This concern for efficiency and priorities I think is valuable. But it is based on a dangerous assumption — that we know all the relevant factors. And sometimes it is based on the assumption that we know what will happen in the future.

But we live in a complex world where it is perilous to presume we know even most of the relevant factors. The watch industry was impacted hugely by the development of digital watches. As a result, cheap watches became just as reliable as expensive ones. An expensive watch became almost entirely a status symbol — there was no functional superiority left. This was a new development, but at least it had to do with watches. Who’d ever have thought that phones would replace watches? I haven’t owned a watch for years, and I now use my mobile phone as my way of finding out what the time is. Who could have predicted that mobile phones would impact the watch market?

Technology changes far more rapidly than relationships (which I am personally glad about), but the technology can impact quite personal concerns — such as the industry we work in. The typing pool is a fading memory — thanks to the impact of information technology. Libraries still have books but are very different to what they were a few decades ago.

So What?

If everything were entirely unpredictable there would be nothing to be done. But this isn’t the case. There are patterns that are somewhat stable and, perhaps more importantly, basic human needs and desires remain quite unchanging.

There is uncertainty about the big picture: it seems certain that our climate is changing. The weather is an awfully difficult thing to predict beyond a few days. The experts tell us that an overall warming may lead to some places getting colder. We know that coastal regions will be affected by rising sea levels. It is likely that storms will be more intense.

We know that human needs for food, shelter and clothing will not change much over the time period that our climate is going to get hotter (a few decades to a century or so). And so we can take some pretty good guesses about how we need to respond to climate change. We need to move housing, find ways to grow food in different climates, and so on.

There is uncertainty in our personal lives too. Divorce is no longer rare (my feeling is that on balance this is a good thing), housing (in Australia, where I live, at least) is becoming less secure, and it seems likely that petrol fuelled cars will soon be a thing of the past (even Detroit is adapting!).

I think the way to spread the risk in our personal lives is to develop a range of friendships — perhaps spread geographically. The need people have for connection is not likely to change any time soon. And so it will help to have good relationships with those who share our interests and concerns — and perhaps a range of expertise.

All of which will mean ‘wasting’ time and effort. We may never get anything for the time and love we invest in a relationship (apart from becoming a better person perhaps). Favours may not be returned, and keeping count is unlikely to help.

Nature is very wasteful in some ways. All those seeds wasted to plant so few trees. All those different ways of taking in nourishment. So much diversity in styles of movement. This means that natural systems tend to be resilient and capable of dealing with big changes.

The Bottom Line

I think it is folly to value efficiency too highly — especially in our personal lives. It seems wiser to me to have lots of relationships, many interests and lots of back-up options.

I’d like to hear what you think. How highly do you value efficiency? Does it fit well in some areas of your life and not others? Have you had experiences of efficiency working very well for you, or times when it has lead to bad decisions?

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