The Efficiency Trap.

The Efficiency Trap.

In his new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman takes readers through a sobering assessment of “time management” and presents a new way to form a better relationship with yourself and escape the dangerous “efficiency traps” lurking around every corner.

In a nutshell, Burkeman argues that the more productive we are, the more pressure we feel and this cycle is dangerous to our health and happiness. 

I’ve seen this in my own businesses and the institutions where I teach or volunteer. The more efficient I am at my job, the more people pour into a perceived limitless resource of my time and efficiency, expecting me to get even more done. 

As as serious student of worker productivity, time management, efficiency and all the downfalls possible in the pursuit of each ideal, I’ve come full circle in my life and in coaching to remind all my members: in your life and in your business, you can do anything you want but you cannot do everything.

That’s the dirty little secret about time management, productivity and life hacks. They promise you’ll get so efficient at managing your time and being on top of everything that you’ll have ample time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done–this is absolutely and profoundly untrue.

For many years, I’ve kept a large poster in my office that says “Get shit done.” Since then, I plastered a piece of masking tape between “get” and “shit” where I’ve scrawled the words “the right,” so that the poster now reads “Get the right shit done.”

Years ago, I would put so much time and energy into getting “everything” done at the expense of the things that really mattered. A friend and colleague visiting my first clinic many moons ago laughed when he realized, “You just can’t leave the office until everything is done, can you?” I assumed he was the same way.

“You just leave the office without letters being sent to referring doctors from the new patients you saw today?” I asked.

“It depends,” he said, “If it’s six o’clock and time for dinner, it’s time for dinner and I leave the office even if the President is in the reception room with a toothache.”

I admired his clearly-defined priorities. 

One unmovable priority in his life, agreed upon by his entire family was that they would sit down every evening for dinner at six o’clock. It made decision making very easy. When his daughter wanted to join the traveling basketball team, he and his wife asked if the extra practice would interfere with dinner time at six o’clock. It did and so the question was answered and the decision made before it ever became an issue. 

The words “it depends” are really not popular in time management, coaching, consulting and teaching in general. People want concrete answers to their questions. We want black and white answers to questions with a thousand shades of gray. 

Luckily, I saw what my friend had already learned and he saved me many years of wasted time, running in circles getting “everything” done and postponing what really matters and what I care about most: time with my kids and serving my higher sense of purpose on this planet.

When I made that critically-important decision, like Burkeman reviews in his book, I became less frustrated, more fulfilled, less stressed and more human. My life became more meaningful, joyful and (in high irony) more productive by getting out of the “busyness” game.

I had more time for the things that really mattered, both in my personal and professional lives. I distanced myself from toxic relationships and found I had more time to do things with my kids that really mattered to them. I stopped treating adult orthodontic patients and had the profit margin to invest in exceptional employees and systems for treating kids. I stopped working with toxic employees and put a structured interview process in place centered around our core values.

I embraced reality and committed to seeing and accepting things as they really are, not how I wish them to be and I got comfortable with the uncomfortable fact that little things pile up that might never get done. And in the end, what I’ve discovered is tremendous productivity even in the midst of inefficiency by the world’s standards. 

You don’t need a smartphone with apps that ding and buzz. You don’t need Google’s suite of products and communication tools. You simply need a list of unmovable priorities and the determined mindset and acceptance that you cannot control everything, you don’t have to get everything done and you can actually embrace the 4,000 weeks (more or less) that you’ll be on this planet in a way that leaves it better than you found it without losing sight of what really, truly matters to you.

Worked at Burleson Orthodontics. Attended University of Missouri–Kansas City. Lives in Kansas City, Missouri.