Time, Efficiency and Meaning


How we think about time and how we prioritise this finite resource lies at the heart of constructing an impactful and meaningful life.

Following a recent dialogue between Oliver Burkeman and Sam Harris, I’d like to offer three simple reflections for evaluating how we think about time.

While popular wisdom may tell us that “The more efficient we become, the more we can do,” this myth often misleads us towards optimising for the insignificant and deferring happiness to an elusive future state.

What is the cost of efficiency?

“The focus on efficiency leads strangely to a subversion of one’s deeper priorities.” Sam Harris

Whether it’s measuring velocity, decreasing cycle time or increasing output, I have had too many conversations to count about efficiency with Engineering VPs, CTOs and Execs. This hyper focus on speed and output can blind us to peripheral variables. Speed is important. What else is important? And what is important now?

We seem to live with the fundamental illusion that “If we could just control things better than we have been doing to date, we could do more or less everything that we want to do… What that encourages is a failure to triage at the first opportunity.” Sam Harris.

What if we accept our limitation and force early prioritisation of the important things?

Does clearing your backlog serve you?

“We are finite and the potential number of little things to do is essentially infinite.” Oliver Burkeman

What if that feeling you get (or hope to get) when your inbox is empty and your notifications are cleared is working against what’s important?

The myth of clearing our plate before getting to the important stuff means that we’re optimising our system to process small tasks. Any system that optimises for ‘X’, tends to attract more of ‘X’. And so in optimising for clearing small tasks in order to get to the important ones, we run the risk of getting more small tasks. Not ideal!

What if we accept the feeling of overwhelm as a reality of life rather than something to be solved?

What if it’s not about getting it done?

“In the very middle of writing the email you don’t feel like writing, can you locate some acceptance and happiness? It can’t just be about getting it done. Happiness can’t be predicated on getting it done. Because then you’re just getting through your life.” Sam Harris

Oliver shares a beautiful reflection on parenting: it’s tempting to see the role of a parent as being to raise successful adults. But what does a successful childhood look like? What of the experience of being a child? Of being a parent?

It’s easy to focus on where we want to land, and neglect happiness in the present. As Oliver says, “It’s not a dress rehearsal, it has to matter now if it’s ever going to matter.”

So I leave you with one last question – What matters to you now?

Now halve that list 😉


One response to “Time, Efficiency and Meaning”

  1. very nice ideas Kirsten, im taking this one with me: “Any system that optimises for ‘X’, tends to attract more of ‘X’” thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s