Efficiency is the Enemy of Invention
I distinctly remember the moment when I became aware of the value of time.
There was so much I wanted to accomplish but so little time to do it in.
If I had any hope of succeeding, I knew I would need to be extremely efficient. Every task needed to be productive and carved a precise spot in the schedule. There was not a minute that could be wasted on things which “didn’t matter” like small talk and chores.
And to compensate for any wasted time, I would need to work faster, “to catch up”, to be “more efficient”. It was a vicious cycle.
It’s easy to see that I’m not alone. You only need to peruse Youtube to see the endless stream of advice from so-called productivity gurus preaching the virtues of reading audiobooks at 2x speed and mapping your entire life out in a Notion document.
But after leaving school, this desire to not “waste time” became more hindrance than help.
Up until this point, many of the things I’d set out to do were well-defined like revising for exams or doing chores. I knew where I was starting from and where I was heading- there’s no uncertainty- it’s just a matter of putting in the work. Here efficiency is the aim of the game- why explore all paths when you can simply head down the shortest one?
But if you’re a creative, you’ll know that many of the most interesting problems in the world aren’t like this. As engineers, designers, writers, artists and inventors, we rarely know what our final destination is, never mind what path to take.
Often times, all we start with is an idea. And that’s it- the rest of the canvas is empty. Left for us to paint.
Trying to be “efficient” here is a fool’s errand.
Instead, it’s critical to let yourself wander. To explore all paths and create new ones. Tasks need not just completing but incubating- we need to engage not just the logical, local analysis of the conscious mind but also the global, synthesis of the unconscious mind.
Tasks can’t be approached sequentially- they must be done iteratively. Two steps back and three steps forward.
Those in the creative industries have long since recognised this. Rich Hickey calls this “Hammock-Drive Development.” Paula Scher in her widely-watched TED talk says,
“Serious design, serious play, is something else. For one thing, it often happens spontaneously, intuitively, accidentally or incidentally.”
Jeff Bezos sets aside time to go on thinking retreats.
So now, when I set out to create, I slow down. I stop trying to be efficient.
Instead, I take a shower, go for a walk, do some exercise. Embrace mundane chores. And know the ideas will come and the path forward will present itself.
When I find myself wandering, I know I’m not wasting- I’m incubating.
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