Inefficiency as a Blessing in Disguise

In the process of tidying up my office I have managed to fill several large bins for recycling. I found many unremembered old reports. Indeed, sometimes I found multiple copies due to my incompetence in remembering where I filed the first one. However well-thumbed, most were by now ten or more years out of date and probably available on the web anyhow. To my surprise, I also found two files of print outs of blogposts dating back to the first couple of years I was writing (2010-12). Why I felt I needed to print them out I can no longer recall, perhaps I didn’t trust them to have a continuing life on the web, but looking through them reminded me of things I’d quite forgotten I’d written about.

One of the posts I came across was on inefficiency, something that preys on many a researcher’s mind. It is easier, to my mind, to keep pushing on with experimental work, which has its own rhythm and often the experiments dictate the timescale. It is when it comes to sitting at a desk, things get harder. For me, having multiple alternatives of the things I really ought to do, makes life easier. If I don’t feel like writing a letter of condolence to an alumnus’s widow, perhaps working my email mountain down will be better for the state of mind I’m in. If reading through some College committee paperwork does not appeal, perhaps thinking about an upcoming meeting on policy for science will feel more attractive. Having a wide range of options of what I absolutely need to do in the next few days means I can try to be as efficient as possible, by being inefficient about any single thing.

Of course, one can get caught out. I do find it irritating when half-way through a piece of writing, sometimes even half-way through a paragraph or sentence, I look at the clock and realise I should be somewhere else. To return to my computer to find a sentence beginning ‘It is obvious that….’ when it breaks off, and with no memory of what was obvious to me a couple of hours earlier, is frustrating to say the least. To avoid this, I do try to jot down (metaphorically) a few key words to remind me what I had in mind when the words were flowing to make it easier to pick up later, but too often I don’t have the forethought/time to do this.

There is another aspect to inefficiency raised by the Guardian journalist Emma Wilkins this week, that of allowing time for thoughts to mature, including when doing something totally different such as going for a walk. As she put it

‘for me, taking time out for a walk or to visit a friend doesn’t necessarily make me less productive. Where do ideas and solutions come from if not from daily life? They are just as likely to emerge when I’m hanging out the washing or walking through the bush, as when I’m staring at a screen.’

I totally agree with that too, although I don’t think of that as being inefficient so much as creating the necessary time for ideas to crystallise or for a bit of lateral thinking to come into play. Having been staring at something on the screen for far too long and heading off to boil the kettle, often allows for the space for clarity to emerge. Time to separate the wood from the trees.

To my mind, the lack of such time was one of the issues that I found hardest during the height of the pandemic, and I know I’m not alone on this. When every meeting was mediated through the computer screen, when meetings ran on the hour every hour, often with inadequate time to get to the kettle in between, let alone the bathroom, provoked utter exhaustion. A feeling of total relentlessness and lack of control over the diary while trying to do, not only the day job, but also (as the Head of a College) keep up with the changing government regulations about meeting, catering, living together. It was a period of such intensity there was no time to think ‘am I being efficient?’, it was merely a case of ‘can I finally get up off this uncomfortable desk chair?’

The changes to our ways of working seem permanent. Whereas people used to phone for 1:1 conversations but committees were in person however far the travel (of course, that did mean some people might not show at all), that is no longer so. Phoning is rare, and I realised how used I have become to seeing people through the screen when I found myself opting for a Zoom call over the phone for a call with someone I’d never met. I used to think phoning was totally adequate, yet now it seems less than satisfactory.

But whatever changes in the way we interact with others at a distance, I am sure we will all need to continue being inefficient in whatever way works for us as individuals. Plenty of coffee and comfort breaks, plenty of brief walks around the place to clear the head, switching from task to task if that helps. Being hung up on never wasting a moment is, to my mind, the best way of wasting many moments while ostensibly sticking to the job in hand.


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