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The benefits of inefficiency

We live in a world that prizes efficiency. Make the most out of life, we’re told. Stop wasting time. We expect to maximise our allotted days on earth: achieve our goals, do things quickly, make the optimum choice. And we become frustrated with inefficiency in others: the hours spent on the phone to a call centre, the manager who won’t reply to our emails, the dawdlers in front of us as we’re trying to get past.

I have an admission: I am a horribly inefficient person. Yes, I get things done – lots of things, as it happens – but it seems to take me three times as long as it does everyone else.

Example: Before I go shopping, I dutifully write a list, but often forget to add half the items I need. So I’m forced to return to the shop to get them. And then I’ll get home only to have forgotten one more thing, and so off I go back to the shop again. That’s three trips for the price of one. I’ve spent years getting annoyed with myself for the time I’ve wasted being inefficient, but no longer. Because I’ve now realised that the meandering route has the potential to release benefits that tick-box efficiency never will.

When we forget things we need to buy or do, we’re forced to be both creative, by thinking of a way around the problem, and to be flexible, by being open to new ideas. Flexibility and creativity exercise our brains as much as any time-managed HIIT workout – and a healthy brain is a healthy human. In addition, inefficiency means that we won’t have time for other activities, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If we can identify our least necessary habits (checking Facebook, anyone?) and drop them from our agenda, we’ll get as much done as we need, and save ourselves neural overload into the bargain.

Most importantly, and if we don’t want to become frustrated with ourselves or others, we’ll have to let go of the mantra that our time on earth must be spent optimally. Our ancestors, along with billions of people in the world today, desired not much more than to feed and shelter themselves and their family. If we’re lucky enough to achieve those aims, anything else we get out of life is a bonus.

Inefficiency is an opportunity: Step-by-step to embracing a waste of time

1. Become aware of frustration at inefficiency in yourself or others. We can’t avoid the emotion, but we can recognise when it occurs, greet it warmly, and wait for it to pass.

2. Let go of the ideal that we must maximise our time. It’s a twenty-first century notion that doesn’t serve us well.

3. Consider how this inefficiency has forced you to both devise alternative solutions and be open to new ideas. Praise yourself for exercising your flexible, creative brain.

4. Think about which activities can be dropped from your agenda in order to accommodate the meandering route.

This column was first published by GMC in Breathe magazine, 2017.

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