We live in a world that celebrates productivity. Getting more done in less time is the battle cry of ambitious people. “Time wasting” activities, like a walk around the block, a conversation with a co-worker, getting up from our desk, or taking a moment to look out the window, threaten to undermine the quest to get more done.
Our daily lives often consist of a dogged pursuit of practicality and usefulness at all costs.
The goal is to maximize efficiency and to minimize anything that gets in the way of that pursuit. There is an ever growing supply of apps, books, wearable devices and advice and how-to books and sites aimed at helping us in our mission to get more done. Author and productivity expert Chris Bailey dismisses the majority as not helpful. He calls it “productivity porn” because all they do is provide the fantasy of productivity. Ouch. (Think about it, though, the time and energy you spend on learning or reading how to be more efficient you could be, you know, getting things done.)
But what if efficiency and productivity aren’t all they are cracked up to be? We may be getting more done, but in the process, are we missing out on the immeasurable value of something else?
There is research that suggests this might be the case. In a study bluntly called Is Efficiency Overrated? Minimal Social Interactions Lead to Belonging and Positive Affect, coffee shop customers who had a friendly interaction with a barista (smiled, made eye contact and had a brief conversation) experienced a greater feeling of wellbeing and belonging than those who rushed through the interaction and didn’t connect at all. Along similar lines, commuters who were asked to speak to a stranger on a train had a more pleasurable experience than those who kept to themselves even though they predicted the opposite.
Another study showed a boost in problem-solving skills in students who took a 10-minute break from studying by having a conversation with a friend. Those who kept their noses buried in their books didn’t experience the boost. This is counter-intuitive. Less studying and more social interaction yielded better results.
Excessive usefulness and efficiency can only take you so far. Making genuine connections, taking a moment to reflect, looking up from our phones or books, allowing for spontaneity, giving oneself permission to take a break, to make a mistake, and having the courage to fix them, are invaluable.
In a beautiful essay, In Praise of Impracticality, Bill Hayes captures it perfectly:
I saw a girl on a Manhattan-bound subway train one day…Her look — a sort of Sally-Bowles-does-Brooklyn — was complete with a matching knockoff L.V. handbag and umbrella. She was seated next to a young man who was as dashing in his way as she was adorable, but she took no notice of him as she was completely absorbed in a paperback titled something like “Becoming a Practical Thinker.”
I had an impulse to tear the book from her hands.
“Don’t do that,” I wanted to say. “Practicality will not get you where you want to go.”