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Balance, Effectiveness, and Efficiency

I've already described what balance is.  In this post, I'm going to relate balance to two key factors that affect productivity: effectiveness and efficiency.

The way things are - the current state - can be described in terms of forces acting on us.  The current state largely defines how effective and how efficient we are at things.  If we want to change our efficiency or our effectiveness, we need to change the forces at work.  But to know how to change the forces, we need to understand more about our current level of efficiency and effectiveness.  So knowing about effectiveness and efficiency, as it pertains to our lives, is a necessary prerequisite.

There is a global interest in efficiency these days, so this is a good place to start.  Efficiency is quantitative.  It describes how much we can do, the speed we can do it, and the error rate of our activity.  Efficiency is a big deal these days because of climate change; if we're not efficient, then we're creating waste, and waste is a key factor in climate change.

Applied to personal productivity, we're talking about wasted time and wasted effort.  If you can cut down on the time and effort you waste, then your efficiency - and therefore your productivity - will improve.

This can be very hard to do, because once you've done something, you can't just go on to the next thing.  You need to stop, step back, and assess how you did that one thing.  What sources of waste were there?  How can you offset those wastes?  All this reflection itself takes time and effort, which eats into your free time.  So trying to make yourself efficient can actually make you less efficient.

That's why time management systems exist: they provide the methods and tools you need to skip doing all that reflection, and still improve your efficiency. Of course, everyone's brain works differently, so one time management system will work for everybody.  And that's why there's so many time management systems out there.

But there's a problem with efficiency: too much efficiency will make a thing too sensitive to change.  To be extremely efficient, you have to be extremely specialized.  But when the current state changes, your specialization becomes irrelevant, and your efficiency takes a nose dive.  Extremely efficient systems are brittle - they can't handle much variability before they shatter like glass.

The U.S. financial system is a great example.  It was hyperspecialized - and therefore hyperefficient - at making money for anybody who could get involved.  But it got stressed a little too much, and BAM! it just fell apart.

This same effect is evident in the animal kingdom too.  Animals that are too specialized just can't handle situations where the context changes too quickly.  A cheetah is very fast when it's running in a straight line - it's specialized for that sort of thing.  But once it's up to speed, it can't manoeuvre worth a damn.  Horses are specialized for running on relatively flat areas, whereas mountain goats are specialized for getting around on very uneven ground.

A key reason why humans are the most powerful creatures on the earth is because we're not specialized.  We're adaptive.  Lots of animals are faster than humans, or stronger than humans, or bigger (or smaller) than humans.  But we can adapt better than other animals.  So no matter what Mother Nature throws at us - no matter how the current state changes - humans are more likely to survive than other animals because we're not hyperspecialized to the current state.

Adaptability is a sign of effectiveness, which is the other side of the efficiency coin.  While efficiency is quantitative, effectiveness is qualitative.  Efficiency relates to how fast we do things; effectiveness relates to how well we do things.

Effectiveness and efficiency are the yin and yang of balance in personal productivity.  They're the two basic forces at work.  Too much of either one and, overall, you suffer.  Striking the right balance between them is the key to optimal productivity, traded off with everything else - happiness.

Effectiveness is important because the world will change around you.  You need to be able to change with it, to adapt, so that you can keep going.

You might be spending 80 hours a week at work, and you might be terribly efficient during those 80 hours, but how effective is that if you have no life?

You might be able to churn through email at a voracious rate, but how effective is that when you can't get online?

You might be able to accurately account for and optimize every minute of your business day, but how effective is that if everyone you work with works to only a resolution of 15-minute blocks?

You might have optimized your finances to the point of saving more money than anyone else you know, but how effective is that if you'll live your life as a hermit and a miser?

Effectiveness is grossly underrepresented in modern society, but effectiveness is where the real good comes from whatever you do.  If you can't be effective then, quite frankly, there's not much point in doing anything.

So the real question of balance is simple: we need to balance efficiency and effectiveness.  Everyone will find a different balance point, because everyone's situation is different.

The most basic questions you can ever ask yourself are:
  • Am I really being effective?  Does what I'm doing really matter?
  • Am I really being efficient?  Am I doing the best I can?
  • Where is the best balance point for me between effectiveness and efficiency?
Many things I will write about will return to these questions, in more specific forms.

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