This is an online only chapter for my book What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done that didn’t fit in the printed book. It goes in part seven, “Living this Out.”
Surge mode, deliberate inefficiency, and other unconventional practices.
Unorthodox routes often yield a remarkable amount of ideas, approaches, and technologies that we would never have realized otherwise. – Kirsten D Sandberg
Knowledge work is fundamentally different from production work—and most of us are knowledge workers. Nonetheless, most people—including, unfortunately, most managers—are still operating according to an industrial era mindset where efficiency is the path to effectiveness.
Today, it is not. And, it never has been—except in certain cases (to be mentioned below) which (unfortunately!) predominated during the industrial era. Today more than ever, and with knowledge work especially, sometimes inefficiency is often the path to effectiveness.
I’m not ultimately advocating inefficiency here. And, more importantly, I’m certainly not advocating laziness or carelessness in our work.
Rather, what I intend to show is that it is precisely practices that appear inefficient at first that are the most efficient in the long run. We need to be willing to accept the short-term appearance of inefficiency if we truly care about doing what matters.
Effectiveness is the ultimate efficiency, and since the path to effectiveness often looks inefficient, the seemingly “inefficient” path is actually often the most efficient in the long run.
The point of “inefficiency” is not that efficiency doesn’t ultimately matter. It’s that, rather, the seemingly “inefficient” route is, in many cases, actually the path to greater efficiency because it is the path to greater effectiveness.
In chapter 20 on harnessing the time killers, we talked about how to harness procrastination to create efficiency.
Deliberate inefficiency is the opposite of deliberate procrastination. Deliberate procrastination is about forcing efficiency—reducing the time available in order to maximize your focus on the essential. Deliberate inefficiency, on the other hand, is about creating large times of meandering in order to improve creativity (and, thus effectiveness).
This matters because, when it comes to knowledge work, “slack time” is often incredibly effective. In fact, it is often the key to success.
We are accustomed to thinking of work in an industrial-era mindset. When dealing with assembly lines, factories, machines, and supply chains, the primary aim is efficiency—getting as much done as quickly as possible. In those cases, efficiency often comes from cutting out all the slack that is possible from the processes.
When dealing with machines, this makes sense. The problem is that we have unwittingly transferred this idea to people as well. Our desire for lean operations and efficiency leads us to think that we need to cut slack out of the human element as well.
Which is wrong.
It’s wrong because people aren’t machines.
That’s a basic idea, but pretty important—and often overlooked.
The reason is that the analogy to “slack time” with machines is not wasted time when it comes to people, but rather thinking time. If we cut out all the slack in our human processes, we cut out thinking time. And, in an era of knowledge work, that is deadly.
Kirsten Sandberg captures this well in her article The Case for Slack: Building ‘Incubation Time’ Into Your Week. She notes that “slack is anathema to most manufacturing processes, but it’s indispensable for creativity.”
In order to preserve this incubation time, we need to update our mental models of productivity. With manufacturing the processes are mostly “linear, explicit, and ultimately predictable: we can touch, analyze, and improve them by eliminating time or other resources. In this model, time is money, and less is more: the less time the process takes, the more money you make.”
But it’s different with people. “A thought…often results form a nonlinear, subterranean, or even random process. Inputs, outputs, and the nature of the transformation can vary wildly each time. In this model, ideas are money, and more is more. Cutting time from the process can diminish the quality of the ideas. Research bears this out: time pressure, either perceived or actual, increase the rate but not necessarily the quality of performance.”
Well said. Deliberate inefficiency (“slack time”) is not inefficient, but is a critical source of new ideas. Allowing for this is not, therefore, ultimately inefficient. Killing it, in fact, is inefficient undermining effectiveness is the most inefficient thing you can ultimately do. It’s like the guy who killed the goose with the golden eggs. He thought he was going to get all the eggs at once (that’s efficient), but it turned out that, by killing the goose, he destroyed the ability to get any more eggs at all.
This is demonstrated to the Nth degree in the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick, noted that “it is necessary to be slightly underemployed if you are to do something significant.”
He is speaking from experience. His book, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, is a “human-side-of-science classic.” And at the start, he states that one of his aims is to show that “science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles.”
The nonlinear, very human process by which they discovered the structure of DNA involved quite a bit of apparent “inefficiency.” The book tells stories of long weekends, parties, international trips, and all sorts of other things. This was not, however, wasted time, but enabled the time for interaction and reflection that was necessary to gain the insight they needed.
Eugene Griessman does the best job of summarizing this in Time Tactics of Very Successful People:
Watson and Crick had the luxury of being able to study all sorts of ideas, interact with scientists in many fields, attend conferences all over the world. But most of all, Watson and Crick had time to think about what they were reading and hearing and seeing. That’s what Watson means when he praises underemployment.
If these two researchers had not received generous research grants, if they had needed to hold down two jobs in order to make ends meet, they probably would not have made the discovery that revolutionized biological research. Thanks to generous support plus the British university tradition that emphasizes contemplation, Watson and Crick were sufficiently underemployed to do something significant.
People on treadmills don’t get very far. If you’re so busy working that you have no time to think about what you’re working at, you’ll be unable to make full use of your accomplishments.
Underemployment provides the time between activities to reflect on what you’ve just finished and think, “What does this mean?” “How can I exploit what I have done?” Underemployment provides the time to figure out other ways than the obvious to use what you’re producing. And it provides time to consider how what you’ve done fits with what’s already been done.
The fact that these guys uncovered the structure of DNA is a stunning endorsement for thinking time—and the alleged “inefficiency” involved in it.
When should you use the tactic of deliberate inefficiency? This is best illustrated by contrasting it with deliberate procrastination: Whereas deliberate procrastination is best when you are dealing primarily with known territory, deliberate inefficiency is best when you are dealing with territory that is largely unknown.
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Seasons of Low Productivity Are Not Always Bad
Jason Fried, co-founder of 37 Signals and co-author of Rework, from his blog:
A few weeks ago, I was on fire. I was working on some designs for a prototype of a new software product, and the ideas were flowing as they hadn’t in months. Every day, I felt as if I were accomplishing two or three days’ worth of work. I was in the zone, and it felt fantastic.
It lasted about three weeks. And then I found myself back at my old pace. Instead of being super productive, I was sort-of productive. Some days, I felt as if I barely accomplished anything.
So what was wrong? Nothing at all.
I believe it’s perfectly fine to spend some of your time, maybe even a lot of your time, not firing on all cylinders. Just like full employment isn’t necessarily good for an economy, full capacity isn’t always great for your mind.
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“Wasting” Time on Facebook and Social Networking
Many companies restrict employee access to social networks, personal web mail, and other sites, thinking that they are a distraction that wastes time.
This is a classic case of not trusting people and failing to treat them as adults. It also reflects an outdated notion of work. For knowledge workers, work is not just something you do 9-5. Email keeps coming long after you leave work, and good ideas come at 8:00 at night just as easily as 10:00 am. Spending 15 minutes on Facebook at 3:00 in the afternoon is not a big deal given the new nature of work as something that can happen anywhere, at any time, and when our most productive asset is now our minds rather than an ongoing willingness to create widgets.
But more than that, it fails to realize that, when people are self motivated (as the people you hire ought to be), you don’t have to worry about them wasting time. They love what they do and are driven to do it. They don’t want to sabotage themselves. They know the right time to take breaks—when it will actually benefit their overall energy and productivity rather than compromise it.
For self-motivated people, time spent on Facebook is actually productive. It is productive for building your networks and spreading truth. Both of these build people up, and thus increase productive capacity.
Research actually bears this out by showing that employees with extensive online networks (such as through Facebook, LinkedIn, and so forth) are actually more productive than those without them. Scott Belsky notes:
An article in the February 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review cited a recent MIT study showing that employees with the most extensive personal online networks were 7 percent more productive than their colleagues, and those with the most cohesive face-to-face networks were 30 percent more productive. Clearly, our respective communities—both online and offline—play a critical role in helping us refine our ideas, stay focused, and execute to completion.
Further, a recent article on Slate noted:
There’s no empirical evidence that unfettered access to the Internet turns people into slackers at work. The research shows just the opposite. Brent Corker, a professor of marketing at the University of Melbourne, recently tested how two sets of workers—one group that was blocked from using the Web and another that had free access—perform various tasks. Corker found that those who could use the Web were 9 percent more productive than those who couldn’t. Why? Because we aren’t robots; people with Web access took short breaks to look online while doing their work, and the distractions kept them sharper than the folks who had no choice but to keep on task.
Facebook and other online networks and interaction help us refine, spread, and gain ideas. These are three core competencies in the era of knowledge work.
If you are worried that your employees are going to spend too much time on Facebook, you’ve hired the wrong people. Not because you’ve hired people who have the “audacity” to use Facebook on the job, but because you’ve hired people that don’t know how to use Facebook rightly and incorporate it effectively into their overall lives.
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Why Surfing the Internet for Fun at Work Makes You More Productive, Not Less
As we’ve seen, research shows that employees who are able to surf the internet at work are 9% more productive. Why is this? It’s because of the way work is broken up. If you are writing a report, for example, it involves things like formatting graphs, writing, gathering information, and a host of other such smaller components. To keep our energy up, we tend to reward ourselves with small breaks between each of these tasks. If we aren’t allowed to do this, our concentration drops.
Allowing full internet access for people at work thus increases their overall net concentration for the day by enabling what is called “unobtrusive breaks.”
The essence of an “unobtrusive break” is that you choose when to take it. That’s why it’s unobtrusive: you choose to do it when you realize a break will increase your concentration rather than distract you. (This is also why, on the contrary, unchosen interruptions, even if brief, typically don’t help us: they come at the wrong time, typically when we don’t need the break to refuel our concentration, and hence distract us and disengage us from the task.
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Surge mode means giving a period of intense, focused concentration to a task for an extended period of time. You focus on that task alone and almost nothing else, and do it with an extra burst of energy.
In fact, you derive energy from this extra focus and time. The key to surge mode is that it builds on itself because you find it not draining, but energizing.
For example, when I was leading the Desiring God website redesign, one of the components of the project was organizing all of John Piper’s sermons, articles, and resources (something like 2,000 total at that time) into the categories that would be helpful for enabling people to access them on the site. There wasn’t just one type of category involved here, but several: defining resource type (sermon, article, biography, etc.), topic, sub-topic, secondary topic, Scripture text, occasion (relevant for sermons: Christmas sermon, Easter sermon, etc.), and about 15 other types of categories. I had defined the overall category structure and topics shortly before, but defining the actual categories for each resource also meant adjusting the categories as I went a bit and discovered improvements in them that would work better.
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3 Tips for Getting into the Zone
- Schedule a long stretch of uninterrupted time. “When the mind knows it has no interruptions looming, it can shift into the flow state required to produce high-quality output.”
- Eliminate the possibility of interruptions. It can take 20 minutes to get back into the zone after an interruption—if at all.
- Make sure the task interests you and is not too easy or too hard. The task has to be the right size challenge. It is good to stretch yourself, but stretching yourself too far actually kills your motivation.
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This was a huge task, and it required a single person to do it because of all the inter-relationships involved. You had to not just go one by one, but keep in mind the perspective of the whole so that all the sermons you assigned to a certain topic, for example, really fit with one another. And if they didn’t, you’d then need to break up or redefine the topic a bit.
So, the week before Christmas, I dove in on a Monday and kept going through the following Saturday. I worked 18 hour days and totaled about 100 hours on the project that week—and got it done.
If I had tried to do it in smaller pieces, over a few months, it would have taken a lot longer because I would have had to re-orient myself each time I got back into it. And, I probably wouldn’t have been able to see all the relationships that were necessary to getting this done well.
By using surge mode for this task, I got it done faster and better. And those are the two main benefits of surge mode. Eugene Griessman captures this well:
It is really much more efficient to do huge chunks of work at a time than it is to start and stop a hundred times. The quality of the finished product is better too because it is more cohesive and has fewer seems.
Surge mode utilizes the principle of momentum and helps you get in the zone—and stay there for an extended period (making it easier to get back into the zone the next day, and day after, and so forth).
I have found surge mode critical to every large endeavor I have sought to accomplish.
And, interestingly, the one-hour daily workflow routine I recommended in chapter X is actually an example of surge mode, in a smaller and more contained form. You focus intensely and without distraction for about one hour on processing and executing your daily workflow, and you get done in one hour what otherwise would have taken two or three.
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Core Point: Tactics that appear inefficient at first often actually result in greater effectiveness and, therefore, efficiency. Be open to unconventional methods and ideas.
People on treadmills don’t get very far. If you’re so busy working that you have no time to think about what you’re working at, you’ll be unable to make full use of your accomplishments. – Eugene Griessman
Action: If your organization does not allow people to access Facebook at work and you are involved in setting the policies, consider trying to change that policy!
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 Here’s what I mean by that: If you are seek to be efficient in realms where efficiency actually gets in the way of getting the right result, and getting the best result, that “efficiency” is actually inefficient. We will see one of the best examples of this later in the chapter when we discuss the discovery of the double helix of DNA.
 Kirsten D Sandberg, “Case for Slack: Building ‘Incubation Time’ into Your Week,” Harvard Business Review (June 1, 2001), http://hbr.org/product/case-for-slack-building-incubation-time-into-your-/an/U0106C-PDF-ENG.
 James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (New York: Touchstone, 2001), xi.
 Griessman, Time Tactics of Very Successful People, 48.
 Cal Newport, “Getting Creative Things Done,” http://the99percent.com/tips/6956/Getting-Creative-Things-Done-How-To-Fit-Hard-Thinking-Into-a-Busy-Schedule?utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=ALL&utm_campaign=MIH+Dec+1+2010, accessed September 6, 2011.
 Griessman, Time Tactics of Very Successful People, p. 77. He also gives illustrations from Mozart, Isaac Newton, and Mark Twain: “There are many illustrations of high achievers using the surge mode. Mozart preferred to write music for an hour or so every morning when he got up. But when a piece was demanded, he would work day and night without sleep, sometimes seemingly mesmerized by the task. Isaac Newton made three of his greatest discoveries during tow years of virtually uninterrupted thought, study, and experimentation. Mark Twain wrote six of his best books…during only two summers” (76).