Don’t Be Efficient, Be Effective

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Efficiency is meaningless on its own. Literally meaningless.

What if I told you that I am the most efficient rice organizer you’ve ever seen? Oh yeah. Give me a full bag of rice, and I’ll line up the grains in four hundred symmetrical rows. I can organize the full bag like this in only three minutes because I know how to efficiently distribute the rice without wasting any time or movement. 

But wait…

After such masterful efficiency, all I have is table covered in rice.

That’s not very useful to me or anyone else, showing that efficiency alone matters very little, especially when compared to effectiveness.

Effectiveness is… Everything

Effectiveness is automatically valuable by definition. It means that what you’ve done has achieved some amount of meaningful progress.

This is going to be embarrassing, but here goes…

While I was writing Mini Habits, my time management was horrifying. I’m serious. I’d spend so much time entertaining myself. But amidst the inefficient chaos, I had this mini habit of writing at least 50 words a day, and it guaranteed that I’d at least do something effective every day. 

The reason I wrote mini habits and need mini habits in my life is because I’ve always been one of the least efficient people I know. When you can only get yourself to do a little bit of work every day, you must learn to become effective with it.

Master Effectiveness, Then (Maybe) Consider Efficiency

Time management focuses on efficiency, but efficiency is a modifier of effectiveness, not a substitute for it. So the problem becomes when you search for greater efficiency instead of the simpler and more important search for what’s most effective.

I think it’s a mistake to even consider efficiency unless you’ve already nailed down the most effective things you can do with your time. This is why mini habits are so fantastic. They guide you to search for 1-4 habits that you know will have a great impact on your life, and their always-doable size prioritizes effectiveness over all. 

  • Doing only one push-up in a 24 hour day is horribly inefficient if exercise is your priority, but it is effective.
  • Writing only 50 words in a 24 hour day is horribly inefficient if writing is your priority, but it is effective.

“Too Busy” Is the #1 Sign of Ineffective Efficiency

If you are “too busy” and feel frustrated by it, take notice of what this means.

Busy, unsatisfied people are efficient machines, credit to them for that, but they still get poor results in life because they’re efficient with the wrong things. I don’t care if you completed 48 things today. Did you exercise even a little bit to invest in your body, the body you need to carry you through life tomorrow and the coming decades? Did you spend even a little bit of time planning for or working toward your dreams? Those are just examples.

There are certain things that make you “feel alive” just by thinking about them, and other things that don’t necessarily spark you in that way, but bring results that make you feel alive. For example, you can be passionate about painting, and thinking about it excites you. You might not feel the same about the act of exercise, but feel that way about the results of exercise. These are two types of effective tasks. Both valid. They matter to you, but for different reasons.

  • Effectiveness is choosing the right task, and it makes up for a multitude of inefficiency sins!
  • Efficiency is doing things in a timely and productive manner, but no matter how impressive it is, it cannot make up for choosing the wrong task.

Step One In Life = _______

Let’s start at the basics. Step one in life is to figure out the high impact activities (also useful is figuring out the low-impact activities). Do them FIRST. They need to be the priority or else you’ll be sad.

Mine are currently reading, writing, and exercising. But those are even too vague. Reading a book is different than reading CBS Sports articles. It’s more effective at bringing me the results I’m looking for in life. (I’m also thinking about learning to play the piano, which would be quite rewarding.)

Once you determine what’s effective for you, make it specific.

If you want to start a business, what’s the most effective thing you can do to move forward with that plan? You don’t have to write out your entire roadmap. Just figure out one effective task you can do today that will make it possible to say this tomorrow: “I’m closer to opening my business today than I was yesterday.”

That’s IT. That’s the key to life. Everything good that I’ve done and that’s happened to me is the result of this. Everything bad that’s happened to me has been the result of sulking over my inefficient time management and propensity to play instead of work. I’ve since learned that “wasting time” doesn’t matter very much if you’re still getting the essentials taken care of.

Once you’ve defined what’s effective and have no doubts about it, then perhaps it’s time to look at efficiency, then perhaps you can figure out ways to increase your output in that area. But until you’ve defined what’s most effective in your life and have demonstrated the ability to practice the minimum effective dose of it, “efficiency” is a just a fancy-looking waste of time.

The Power of the Minimum Effective Dose

With most things, it’s best to start with the minimum effective dose:

  • Imagine you’re taking medicine with nasty side effects. What’s the ideal dosage? The minimum effective dose to shield you from unnecessary adverse effects.
  • Imagine you have weak willpower, but you still want to make progress every day. What should you aim for? The minimum effective dose to ensure you stay consistent.

I’ve found that for exercise, one push-up is the minimum effective dose for me. It’s usually enough to spark me to do more, and even on its own, it has enough value in habit formation and even exercising to justify the small aim (otherwise, I’d brush it off, like if I required myself to clap my hands for “exercise”).

Note: Being Effective Is Hard

It’s easier to be efficient than it is to be effective.

Efficiency exists in all facets of life. Whatever you’re doing, you can do it more efficiently, and it’s usually fun. For example, I’ve been extremely efficient within some of the video games I play. I can manage resources efficiently, like ammunition, “mana”, etc. But after playing a game, I’ve only made progress in the game. 

Being effective is more difficult and typically less fun.

I remember one time that I struggled to manage my time, energy, and focus while writing. The result? I only eked out 500 words in three hours of writing! That is laughably inefficient. But I practiced my craft and I wrote 500 hopefully useful words. That’s what I’m talking about! It doesn’t matter that it was the ugliest, most grueling three hours of writing I’ve had. It hit the target.

Can you see the trap? Take a look at these choices:

  • 3 hours of inefficient writing (poor output, embarrassing result for time spent)
  • 3 hours of efficient gaming (excellent output, new high score!)

The trap is to choose the tasks in which you’re guaranteed a smooth and efficient experience. It doesn’t feel good to “waste” time and energy writing inefficiently while you could be efficiently playing a game. You might even prefer to organize rice more if you’re good at it. But that brings us back to the very first sentence: efficiency is meaningless on its own. Literally meaningless. So…

  1. Prioritize the tasks that will have the greatest positive impact on your life.
  2. Regardless of your efficiency and proficiency at these tasks, do them anyway!

This is freeing too, because it takes the pressure off of you to perform excellently. Those who value performance over growth are the same people who prioritize efficiency over effectiveness. It’s a misappropriation about what really matters in life. Life isn’t about doing well. You can organize grains of rice on a table superbly well, but what does it do for you?

It’s better to do the right things poorly than to do the wrong things well. (click to tweet this quote)

As one last example that’s perhaps more relatable than organizing rice, in the last few months or so, I’ve gained 15 pounds of (mostly) muscle. Prior to that, I couldn’t seem to gain weight despite going to the gym. The difference was this.

Before: I’d go to the gym, and do different machines with varying weight amounts. I’d usually do 10 reps on each machine for 2-3 sets and I’d do 6-7 machines. I’d also do some free weight exercises. In total, I maybe did 10 different exercises per workout.

After: I focused on exercises that would be most effective for my goal, such as the bench press, even though the amount I could do was embarrassingly low. I lifted heavier weights at fewer reps. I did maybe half the number of total exercises and reps than I used to do, but the exercises and reps I did do counted for a lot more. That’s when I saw results.

Effectiveness wins every time.

Today, I encourage you to be effective. If it takes you all day to do something unimpressive, but effective, it’s a resounding success. And remember, it’s better to do the right things poorly than to do the wrong things well.1

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.