How To Become More Efficient

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Monday, 7.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency. – Bill Gates

I have been thinking and watching material about efficiency recently and wondering about what’s changed over the last ten years or so in how efficiently I do things. If you think about efficiency as defined technically, in terms of useful work as a portion of the total energy used, are we better off or worse off? Or is it just different?

For example, I started reading the paper again a few weeks ago. Reading 24 pages of the FT is actually a bit of an investment, taking what seems like a couple of hours. That’s a couple of hours when I’m not looking at my phone for news or using a computer. And I feel better informed for it. I’m up to date on what’s happening with Greensill and Archegos. I’m aware of what’s happening in Tigray and how solid state batteries are developing. Yes, I’m paying for a physical paper but I’m remembering more than I ever did when I looked at stuff on screen.

When it comes to efficiency three points come to mind. The first is that we all do far more than we need to do. We do things on devices because clever people design them to be addictive. We do more than we need to at work because we don’t ask whether something is worth doing or not. And we stick to routines and habits that don’t really help us that much any more. The best way to become more efficient is to stop doing things that aren’t worth doing. For me that includes using the phone for most things. I’m not sure that active engagement on social media is a necessary condition for existence. On the other hand, reading and learning are worth still doing.

The next rule about efficiency is to stop repeating yourself. This is something that you are familiar with if you have done programming. Don’t write two lines that do the same thing – use a loop instead. Technology should help us be more effective rather than make life harder for us. Linda Barry, an amazingly creative cartoonist, decided to write her books with a fine brush because her computer made it too easy to delete her words. I’d recommend using the editor ed, which makes it quite hard to delete a line once you’ve got it down instead, forcing you to keep writing like you might with a typewriter. More generally, however, you should use technology to do the things you don’t want to do again and again. Unfortunately, most software tries to make it easy for you to do easy things and, in the process, makes it impossible to do anything complicated. The solution is to get better at using computers.

The third point on my list has to do with deciding what to do. I first thought about this in terms of choosing to do the highest value activity you can do. But what does that mean? Do you optimize for money – doing what earns you the most? Or do you do what makes you happy? Do you think about short-term returns – which perhaps include money or long-term outcomes – which might mean having more time? Do you optimize for joy? I’m a little uncomfortable with words like happiness and joy that set quite a high barrier for some of the things you might have to do – like designing an effective pension portfolio strategy. I settled for suggesting that we optimize for satisfaction – are you content with how you’ve spent your time? Should you have done something else instead or was this the right thing to do right now?

The place to start with any change, however, is always with deciding what to stop doing. If you are under pressure to deliver to a deadline, don’t work harder or add resources. The first strategy will make you tired and lead to mistakes, requiring more time to fix them. The second will take time away from doing to teaching and integrating new people, leaving even less time to do the work. The best thing to do is reduce scope – do less, but make sure that what you deliver is what’s needed most.

If you want to be more efficient, then start by asking yourself what you can stop doing tomorrow.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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