The efficiency delusion


Sometimes inefficiency is best.

Evan Selinger and Clive Thompson write about the American infatuation with efficiency.

Coders get a rush of pleasure out of cutting efficiency out of systems, says Thompson.

If you’d asked me what are some of the typical traits of the people who tend to find coding fun before I started working on the book, I would have made rather obvious observations. Programmers are good at thinking logically. They enjoy solving puzzles and breaking down complicated things.

What I didn’t expect to routinely hear from people who became programmers is that, early on, they appreciated that machines are really good at things that humans are bad at. They’re amazing at taking any process that’s a boring slog and making it faster and more efficient through automation.

Different coders often told me the same story from school, a moment when the efficiency lightbulb went off. As kids, they’d be in math class, hating to have to show all their work. It was always some boring question they knew the answer to at a glance but were forced to write up in multiple steps. So, they all were like, “Let me just write a solver,” in whatever language they were using. They’d type in the equation and, boom, a machine outputs all the different steps without them having to do all of the work.

After this success, a realization set in: “Wow, my life is filled with dull, repetitive tasks. And I now know how to instruct a machine to do boring chores. So, I should hand them over.” A kind of thrill in optimizing is born.

Since computers are functional machines that can do lots of different things, these coders would very quickly start developing a type of X-ray vision about the world itself. They’d just keep on thinking, “Wow, I could automate that. I could make this more efficient. I could automate this other thing, too.”

Taking this attitude too far causes problems, when the efficiency seekers fail to see that the activity they labeled as inefficiency, is, in fact, important. Thompson tells the story “about a fairly senior engineer who was probably a project manager:”

At some point, he got very angry at the number of jokes that were being told in meetings, because he was like, “Well, this is a waste of time, and our time is precious.” He literally calculated what he estimated to be the number of jokes told over one year and worked out how many personal hours he felt were being wasted on this.

Of course, the surreal thing about that is anyone who actually knows how organizations work will tell you that little bits of joking in a meeting might be the most important thing being done there. They provide unit cohesion. They’re moments of levity that allow people to continue working under frustrating deadlines and stuff like that. But this guy just couldn’t get past seeing life as a spreadsheet.

Also, this from Thompson:

Why are consumers so eager to find a new app that we hope will speed up our lives or give us more free time? I think this has to do with the novelty effect. When we change something in our environment, we sometimes discover that we’re temporarily more productive and creative. Unfortunately, once something is no longer novel and the change in tempo or style stops feeling fresh, the effect fades.

That hits close to home. I regularly switch task managers and writing software. And yeah there’s that rush of newness followed by a let-down.


It’s like the utilisation trap. The notion that if someone is always busy they’re producing more work.

It’s easily demonstrated to be false, especially when you move beyond individuals to teams.

I feel like the search for ‘productivity’ is like a cult sometimes. I don’t believe it’s often important to do more, when you’ll benefit the most from making sure you’re doing the right things, and adjusting your work-life balance towards life as much as possible.


Just like utilizing your macOS boot drive to 98% and filling the RAM with applications will give you a miserable experience.


An example of the opposite: The man who wrote the famous “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline for the New York Post. When I was committing daily newspaper journalism in the 80s, the legend was that this man was a drunk who was wheeled in for an hour or two every day to compose his brilliant headlines, and then sent on his way. Not productive by any stretch. But a genius and highly valued member of the team.


@MitchWagner quoting The Efficency Delusion

One retelling of the Hawthorn effect… often used to remind researchers of one way to screw up the accuracy their studies.

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If I feel busy I feel vital. If I don’t I feel bleugh.

I suspect psychology has a lot to do with it - and that the above dynamic is not an uncommon one.

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It’s like the placebo effect. Which is a real thing, which medicine spent a century trying to eliminate but in more recent years is trying to learn to use.

How do we apply that same principle to app-switching? I get a rush of pleasure and and a burst of productivity switching from OmniFocus to Things, or vice-versa. This is not uncommon among people who gravitate to forums like this one. Is there a some way to get that rush and burst without the hassle and expense of switching?


I’d argue that you aren’t really seeing an increase in efficiency. You might have a change in behaviour patterns during the novelty period, but that is not sustainable, and over even fairly short spans of time is statistically irrelevant. So chasing that just because it’s also enjoyable, and introducing the necessary disruption, is in the long term a detriment to productivity.

Workflows are only efficient when they have been embedded for months or even years in some cases. Conflating novelty with efficiency is possibly a part of the trap.

I’d argue that you need to actually measure delivery over a sustained period before you can actually claim to have been more efficient for switching. I’d put money on the disruption actually slowing things down.


I’ve actually switched enough times that (for the time being) I’ve gotten over this boost of serotonin. I still like to play with new software that comes out, but switching actually makes me feel worse. Primarily because I’m hyper aware of how much time I’m wasting re-inputting all my routines + project tasks. I even thought about dedicating a separate app (like Reminders) to my routines so I could flip flop around more easily but gave up on that as it just exasperated the my indecision. :blush:

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Familiar with the situation… like a Easter egg hunt we may find a prettier one but it’s still a hard-boiled egg. Yes there are differences but…

To the devil with expenses, it’s the time used. Time that I could spend on mastering and using the apps that I already have. (God that sounds self righteous.)

I’ve only downloaded 8 new app recently so i have no problems. At least they weren’t major tools. Halide could be an exception.

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That’s my philosophy as well. I don’t mind paying for good software, it’s the time invested in getting acquainted using it and using it in functional capacities.

My normal recommendation to friends trying out various apps and approaches is usually to stick with the app for at least 30 days, and really take the time to get into the weeds with the software. Usually my biggest hurdle with an app is mastering keyboard shortcuts. Once I have those done pat (well, the ones that I will spend most of my time using) then I can accurately evaluate if I need to try out something new or stick with it and make my own workarounds.


Don’t you mean that coders get a rush of pleasure out of adding efficiencies into systems?


One thing that gets ignored sometimes is the enjoyment of learning something new. When I buy an app like Drafts and spend hours playing around with it only to abandon it, I think of £10 spent on 10 hours of entertainment as pretty decent value.
i.e. if you enjoy reorganising your life, do it as a hobby and it’s totally efficient. But if you do it in work time, be serious about the return on investment for the time spent.

I’ve also been a believer that 100% work is not the same as 100% efficient, at least in the long term. As a teacher I’m always keeping myself aware of the potential for burning out, both for me and students sadly.


Ack! Cutting INefficiency.