Efficiency

I’m really motivated by efficiency. I like to see how things can be done effectively, and once they’re done effectively, how to do them faster, using fewer resources, and in general, “better”. It’s rarely enough for me to get something done; I’d rather get it done well. I had someone the other day ask me about this, and ask me about my process for writing and working, so here we are.

Efficiency

I want to meet this guy’s tailor.

I’m big into efficiency because I’m fundamentally lazy. My mom is nodding her head right now and probably doesn’t know why, but her admonitions during my childhood were pretty much spot on. I don’t like to do unnecessary work, and I like to figure out ways in which I can do things that need doing quickly, because getting things done quickly means less time spent doing them. Speed isn’t everything, though, because getting something done fast but having to do it twice isn’t saving me any time, and I have to retread (boring!) work I’ve done already. “Measure twice, cut once” resonates with me because measuring is a lot less work than cutting, the savings in materials aside.

People ask me how long I spend doing various tasks, and tend to be surprised by my answer. I recently finished a paper for a class in about an hour and a half, for four pages. A classmate of mine expressed surprise that I was so quick; it didn’t seem particularly fast or slow for me. Part of it is that I’m used to writing– these blog posts are 700-1200ish words every day, and I rarely take more than 30-45 minutes writing them. A lot of it, though, is just writing efficiency. I write like I play Tetris, setting up a block of thoughts and massaging them until they’re complete, then moving on. It means I don’t have to keep the entire paper in my head at once and can focus on what I’m saying right now, because I’ve put the previous bits to bed, as it were. A lot of my editing is done on the fly, as I’m writing a sentence. If I’m editing something bigger or that needs deeper review, I ignore it for two or three days and return to it then– my mind is fresh and I’m not still thinking about the details of each paragraph, so I can review it more objectively.

My work process is similar; I look at a task and think about the minimum possible amount of work necessary to complete it, to establish a baseline. From there, I can then add content and broaden the scope reactively, as I work. A lot of times, I find that the parts I think are going to be time-consuming or have little room for further attention turn out to be easier than expected, and that parts I thought would be simple require a lot of careful thought and iteration. Knowing the minimum lets me get something in and functional quickly, then focus on where it can be improved effectively, without wasting time, effort, or resources.

All of this means that I have a long list of little ‘tricks’ to make my life easier, so when something requires a lot of focus and attention, I have the energy to spare. I never really know when these are going to come up, so I try to ensure that my daily energy expenditure is conservative, to keep that reserve going. I used to be apologetic about this, now I’m simply straightforward about it. Sometimes I don’t put in extra energy because that reserve is getting low, and that reserve is what allows me to keep a cool head in a crisis, or juggle lots of different things at once.

I’ve found it’s always worth taking the time to think about the process, because process is where a lot of work and time is lost. Sometimes the best solution isn’t necessarily the most complete one, just because the most complete one isn’t efficient. Coming up with a highly elegant, reusable and revisable script to automate a task I’m only going to do once isn’t terribly efficient; sure it does the work quickly, but I could do it by hand in about the same amount of time and run less risk of wasting a lot of effort. To that point, risk management is an important part of my process; if something I’m trying to make a task complete faster might end with me wasting a ton of time and not moving forward with the actual task, that’s a fairly high risk, and probably one I’ll avoid.

I don’t know how much of this is interesting or useful to anyone; all of the things I’m saying sound like really obvious, “duh tam, everyone knows that” kinds of thoughts. I’m still not yet great at getting out of my own head enough to know what things are obvious to everyone and which are obvious just to me and useful to others. Working on it, though, we’ll see.

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