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The Benefits of Inefficiency

Photography: Voxphoto

From Lifehacking to 43 Folders, workers looking for tools to battle distraction, improve focus and increase efficiency aren’t short of choices. Whether they prefer to make use of Gmail hacks, build detailed lists, outsource their tasks or mindmap their concepts, there’s a range of strategies they can pick up that allow them to complete their projects in the shortest time possible. And they may need them. With the next Web page no more than a click away, multitasking a way of life and even schoolchildren said to use up to 30 different programs at once, life has never been more distracting. But is that a bad thing? If the forces driving distraction are so powerful maybe we should stop fighting them and embrace them. Maybe there’s something to be said for taking your time.

Clearly some inefficiency can bring advantages. When economies are inefficient, somebody is benefitting. A monopoly, for example, allows one firm to charge the prices it wants without having to bother about productivity levels or improving quality; “DrRich,” a medical blogger, has argued that healthcare companies deliberately preserve inefficiencies in their claims processes in order to earn interest on delayed payments and deter doctors from claiming for expensive procedures. But those are inefficiencies that bring harm to others; without them goods would be cheaper and claimants would get their money earlier. But what about the benefits that don’t cause harm and that can help individuals? Here are three ways that working slower and allowing distractions could make your life richer:

1. Time to Think

One option is to redefine inefficiency. If we think of one kind of distraction as time invested rather than time wasted, we can actually plan it as part of our day. In a new book, author and management consultant Daniel Forrester argues that organizations should create time for reflective thinking. Reflection and deep thought, he says, “are critical in generating new ideas within challenging contexts.” Citing a study by knowledge economy analysts Basex, Forrester points out that in 2010, knowledge workers were typically able to devote just 5 percent of their time to reflection, a drop of 7 percent since the last survey two years earlier. The largest amount of time — 25 percent of the workday — consisted of “information overload.”

That time for thought, which others have called “slack time,” has been described as an essential element of innovation. Scientists, proponents argue, theorize before they prove and long before their ideas are accepted. President Obama has talked about the importance of having time to think and strategize during the 2008 Presidential campaign, while President Clinton complained that a lack of time to reflect contributed to his party’s mid-term election defeat. Twitter was thought up by Odeo staff during a brainstorming session in a park playground.

It’s a policy that Google has famously used with its Twenty Percent Time, an allocation of free space in the workweek for employees. The policy is responsible for Gmail, Google News, Google Talk and Orkut among others. It’s also produced a lot of failed projects too though and no shortage of unproductive time. Other workers who want to set aside a schedule for their own creative thinking need to do it carefully, warns Daniel Forrester.

“My advice is that it must live within an established architecture that nurtures the ideas through gates that allow money makers to rise quickly and money losers to fade.  Think time with no tangible outputs nor accountability can be a giant cost.”

2. Learning — and Sharing — Through Gameplaying

Usually, the distractions caused by Web links, search results, YouTube streams, screaming children, honking traffic, pretty snowfalls and the million other things that pull attention away from the screen are thought of negatively. They’re things to avoid and eliminate not seek out and enjoy. Even “slack time” only produces results when the slackers focus on their own creativity rather enjoying the results of someone else’s imagination. There is one time though when we deliberately seek out and enjoy inefficiency: when we’re playing.

In a paper for the International Journal of Learning, authors Jeff Kupperman, Jeff Stanzler, Michael Fahy and Susanna Hapgood argue that while gameplaying may be inefficient, it can deliver real benefits for teaching. Using the parable of the grasshopper and the ant to illustrate their ideas (not the most efficient way to make their argument but perhaps the clearest), they note that the ant would have argued that the game of golf is a waste of time. If you want to put a ball in a hole, he would have told the workshy grasshopper, hitting it with a stick is not the best method. It’s an exercise that requires a “lusory” attitude, a willingness to use play to overcome unnecessary obstacles in order to reach a goal. The same is true of school, the authors argue. Schoolwork itself isn’t particularly practical. Geometry exercises are rarely used by most schoolchildren once they leave the classroom. But they are necessary to graduate, get a degree, and build a career. Making games out of lessons then might not be the most efficient way to deliver knowledge but it can be effective at helping children to absorb the information they’re being taught.

It’s an approach that’s difficult to transition into the workplace but Google again, has given it a try with the video games, pool tables and other amenities scattered around the Googleplex. Encouraging your employees to play doesn’t sound particularly efficient (especially if you’ve already given them 20 percent of the workweek just to think and experiment) but the open entertainment areas may provide an opportunity for ideas to flow between departments. For the company, it’s better that employees stay in the office and discuss their concepts with colleagues than head to a bar and share them with competitors.

3. Inefficiency is Fun!

But perhaps the best argument in favor of inefficiency isn’t that it delivers results but that not delivering results can be so enjoyable and lead in all sorts of unexpected directions. Arguing in favor of distraction in New York magazine, writer Sam Anderson points out that Proust’s gigantic masterpiece was prompted by allowing himself to be distracted by the memories created by biting into a cookie:

“That famous cookie is a kind of hyperlink: a little blip that launches an associative cascade of a million other subjects. This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.”

Unlike “slack time” or play time, unmindfulness isn’t something you can plan or prepare for. But unless you’re a French novelist, you can be sure it won’t help you get your work done.

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