Are You Effective Or Just Efficient?

By Ali Luke

May 15, 2011   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

A lot of popular time management or “life hacking” advice is aimed at making you ever more efficient. Perhaps you’re constantly reading lists of Firefox plugins, concerned that you might be missing out on some essential time-saving tool. Maybe you reorganize your email filing system each week so that everything is impeccably classified.

But have you ever stopped to ask yourself – Am I being effective, or just being efficient?

The first thing to clarify is the difference between being efficient and being effective.

Being efficient means processing things fast. You get through your to-do list quickly and, in any given task, you eliminate time-wasters.

Being effective means choosing to do the right things. You eliminate time-wasting activities or “busy work” from your day.

So you could rephrase the question Am I being effective, or just being efficient as the more dynamic Am I doing something that truly matters to me, or am I just being busy for the sake of it?

Another way to look at this is to think of effectiveness as the big picture. If you want to be truly effective, you need to think about what your values are and what you want to achieve in your life. This is hard work – and it’s the sort of work where you don’t get to show off an empty inbox or a neatly filed set of papers at the end of it. But it’s absolutely essential to do this big-picture thinking if you’re ever going to accomplish anything meaningful.

Your efficiency comes after this. Because, frankly, however efficient your system for organizing your MP3 collection, it’s unlikely to be particularly effective in contributing to your wider goals. You want to concentrate on being efficient at the tasks which really are significant. This might mean, for example, coming up with a system that saves you time and wasted energy when you take on a new project.

Increasing Your Effectiveness
So if being effective is more important than being efficient, how can you go about improving your effectiveness?

One way to start is to write down a list of all the commitments that you have in your life. Try dividing them into categories like your paid work, your relationships with family and friends, your community or church groups, and your education (if appropriate).

If you’re anything like most of us (including me) you might be surprised and even horrified to find out how much you’ve taken on. Do you really have the time and attention to carry out each of these commitments effectively? And which of these commitments is effective for you – do they add to your life, or just take up your time?

It’s never easy to say “no” to people, or to quit an activity that you’re currently engaged in. Sometimes, though, you’ll realize that to become more effective, you can’t simply keep ramping up your efficiency – you have to let something go.

Another great approach is to look at your values. What matters to you most in life? (You might want to list several things.) It could be your family, your health, your career, your church, your bank balance, your free time, your education, a particular cause or all sorts of other things. There are no “right” values – everyone’s will be slightly different.

One of my highest values is significance – I want to feel that the work I do matters in the world. Whenever I get caught up on trying to get ever more efficient at tasks that really don’t matter at all, I take a step back and think about where the significances lies.

(If you want some help clarifying your values, I strongly recommend the life coach Tim Brownson. He really helped me wrap my head around what matters to me – and it’s made my freelancing career go much more smoothly as a result.)

You can also look at people you admire. These don’t need to be celebrities or famous business people – you might look up to your parents, a teacher or mentor, or a colleague. Why are they worthy of your admiration? It’s probably not because they know every keystroke shortcut in existence – it’s because they live effective and meaningful lives.

How do you make sure that you’re effective, not just efficient? What tips do you have for focusing on the big picture, rather than getting bogged down in rushing through the day-to-day stuff?

Written on 4/27/2009 by Ali Hale. Ali is a professional writer and blogger, and a part-time postgraduate student of creative writing. If you need a hand with any sort of written project, drop her a line ([email protected]) or check out her website at Aliventures. Republished 5/15/2011. Photo Credit: Lhechmann


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