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The efficiency trap

In my book, The Work/Parent Switch, I talk about the problem of ‘efficiency thinking’. The efficiency mindset is a task-oriented approach to time that is incredibly useful for getting things done – but it’s not a great mindset for parenting. The efficiency trap can get in the way of us truly connecting with our children. And it negatively impacts working parents’ health and well-being.

As I write this in 2021, many working parents are suffering from severe burnout. The pandemic (with associated lockdowns and school closures) has taken us to the brink and beyond.

It’s easy to attribute these extreme levels of stress to the extreme circumstances parents found ourselves in. We had too much to do. It’s not possible to be a full time professional plus full time teacher/childcarer, parent, entertainer and homemaker – and yet that is the position many working parents were put in. If we are burnt out, it is because we have been holding it all together, no matter what, beyond the point of human capacity and endurance.

But is that the only reason for our burnout? Or might this pandemic also have exposed the limits of the efficiency trap that working parents have been sucked deeper and deeper into for the last few decades?

Most of us see efficiency as a tool to make our busy lives easier. But by prioritising rapid task-completion, the efficiency trap often leads us away from the things that matter most to us. We end up prioritising getting things done above/before spending our time on what really matters to us (children, family, ourselves, making a difference…).

We get sucked into cramming more and more onto our To Do lists, juggling more and more, in the belief that we can avoid dropping plates by being more organised, more productive, more efficient. And, when we can’t fit it all in, then too often it is time for ourselves or for family that gets jettisoned.

Even before the pandemic, most working parents felt constantly busy, constantly rushing to get through everything. But also constantly guilty that there was never enough time for everything and that we were somehow failing.

So perhaps what the pandemic has exposed is not simply that for this brief period in history our To Do lists were too big. Perhaps what it has really exposed is the limits of the efficiency trap. That our efficiency thinking mindset will inevitably lead to failure – to not having enough time for the things that matter, to feeling guilty about how we spend our time, to never feeling like we are doing enough?

Because the real the issue isn’t our To Do lists being too big during the pandemic (though that is undoubtedly true). To Do lists always expand to overfill time. It’s misguided to think that you can ever get through everything on your To Do list. Completing one task always generates another. No matter how efficient you become, there will always be something else to do. Maybe it’s you who will add that extra task (as you realise there is an extra element that would improve something). Or maybe someone else will add that next task to your pile (after all, it seems you are the type of person who gets things done!!). But every time you get anywhere near the bottom of your To Do list more tasks will appear. Efficiency is a trap.

We cannot wait until we have ticked everything off before we do the things that matter. Because no matter how efficient we are, we will still not have enough time for the things that really matter. And we will still feel guilty and that we are failing at something.

So what do we do about this efficiency trap? Can we find a reset button? Claim back time for the things that really matter (ourselves, our children, happiness and wellbeing) by doing them first not last? Make sure the things that matter most are positioned before not after we have done anything else? Prioritise differently and allocate time according to our values and not their production value?

I don’t really know what the answer is. But I’m pretty sure that by stepping outside the efficiency trap – even just for a short time – and seeing it for what it is, we each have a greater chance of finding a solution that works for us and our families.

photo of woman at her desk with her head in her hands to illustrate article on The Efficiency Trap by Anita Cleare

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By Anita Cleare

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